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Smoking more, drinking more alcohol and using more recreational drugs — all while mental health problems grow.

That’s been the growing landscape for millennials in the Philadelphia region and across the country for several years now, according to federal data. Millennials suffer from more anxiety disorders and higher depression rates than other generations. They carry much of the burden of the opioid epidemic. Black millennials in the U.S., faced with inequitable social opportunities, often fare worse.

Though data is somewhat limited, medical experts widely worry the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the growing mental and physical gap for the generation.

“I’m suspicious that millennials are doing worse during COVID times because of the added stress and anxiety — more substance use, more vaping, more combustible cigarettes,” said Dr. Jamie Garfield, a pulmonologist at Temple University Health System’s Lung Center.

A large number of millennials in Philly are people of color living on low incomes. What help is available to this generation, defined as people born between 1981 and 1996?

For folks who come up with ideas to answer that question, a new initiative will give out $50k in prizes and another $50k seed funding. Called the Well City Challenge, the social impact project is a sequel to 2018’s Full City Challenge — but instead of focusing on food and hunger, this focuses on health and wellness.

A partnership between the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and Independence Blue Cross, with Billy Penn as media partner, the project challenges the community to come up with new ideas (or strengthen existing ones) that address specific needs around millennial health in the city.

‘It just kind of snowballs into drinking all the time’

In some categories, young Philadelphians are juggling health issues and substance abuse at rates higher than the population in other cities.

Between 2014 and 2018, the incidence of major depression skyrocketed 42% among millennials in the Philly metro area, according to a Blue Cross Blue Shield Association study. That coincided with a 16% increase in substance abuse disorder. Both these are on par with the national average for that time period. However, the region’s tobacco use disorder rate spiked 19%, nearly double the national average. And alcohol use disorders grew 12% among millennials between 2014 and 2018 in the Philly metro, compared to 5% nationally.

Michaela Lee, 25, of Point Breeze, said it’s no secret she and her peers have been drinking a little bit heavier since March. To her small quarantine friend group, there’s an overload of stress — she lost her job as a recruiter in September — and the longing for a sense of normalcy in a year with so little social contact.

“It’s the one thing we have to do that keeps us feeling like our old lives are still our lives,” Lee said. “It just kind of snowballs into drinking all the time. We’re drinking every weekend … and we’re drinking heavy. I don’t think it’s a problem, but I do say my drinking has gone up.”

By and large, studies indicate millennials are less averse to the stigma of therapy and open to discussing their issues. But in a pandemic year with soaring unemployment and national civil rights upheaval around the Black Lives Matter movement, many people are retreating into themselves, young Philadelphians say.

“Every friend I’m thinking of has had a really difficulty expressing their need for help and need for understanding,” said Derrick Holland, 27, a Temple graduate who grew up around West Philly.

Win $10k to implement a pilot of your idea

Can Philadelphians come up with ways to reach millennials and break down some of the systemic barriers to good health? The Well City Challenge is hoping to lure local organizers and leaders with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Applications open Oct. 26 for ideas in three categories, with each winner scoring a grand prize of $10,000 to implement a pilot of their program.

The three tracks are:

  • Community and social connection: Solutions to wellness that use technology and social media or outdoor activities compliant with social distancing
  • Food and nutrition: Collaborative, community-oriented ventures that capitalize on the intimate relationship between food and health
  • Mind/body: Because engagement in physical activity and mindfulness are closely tied to health outcomes.

You can submit applications anytime through Nov. 20, the week before Thanksgiving. After that, a committee will choose five finalists in each category, and those folks will get to participate in a social venture incubator to refine the ideas.

At an interactive pitch competition in February (think “Shark Tank” but kinder), a panel of judges will select a winner. There’ll also be a People’s Choice Award of up to $7,500. Those winners get to participate in a five-month accelerator to make these cool ideas happen, with the most promising project awarded at least $50k in seed funding.

In planning your application, know that preference will be given to “ideas that embrace the core values of creativity, collaboration, diversity, inclusiveness, and community orientation.”

Anyone can apply — from individuals to community groups to nonprofits. Find out more here, and stay tuned for updates.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...