The Growing Storm: The Psychological Impact of Climate Change on Today’s Youth

Growing up in the late 20th century, as I did, meant that the prospect of climate change was always on the horizon, although it was impossible not to notice the deafening silence of our leaders. Even as a young person, I couldn’t understand how the adults around me could let us march toward potential extinction and not do anything. As an adult, I have learned a lot about the profoundly impactful agendas and players with the power to decide for the planet what is and is not a good course of action in the face of climate change. While it is pretty much impossible to persuasively argue that climate change is not happening at this point, the sad truth is that most of the most powerful players in this arena have no interest in seeing anything change.

So, it is not a surprise that we are now face-to-face with a growing list of serious, climate-related changes to our environment. Together, they are already eradicating biodiversity, leading to a sobering and long list of species extinctions, and making some areas of our world uninhabitable. 

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) issued a report indicating that there is a “50/50 chance of the annual global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels for at least one of the next five years.” There is also a 90% chance that the five-year temperature average between 2022 and 2026 will exceed the average of the previous five-year period. This is important because these are the levels set by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and signal the point at which climate impacts will have serious and largely irreversible impacts on the planet and its many inhabitants. As the climate vital statistics page hosted by NASA shows, current vital signs are already very concerning. Even more troubling is the fact that up to 40% of the world’s population are deemed “highly vulnerable” to climate change impacts, and the most vulnerable are those with the least adaptive capacity due to age, health, and social influence. Indeed, Native American and Indigenous populations are already showing clear signs of climate-related displacement and depression.

As a developmental psychologist, I am deeply attuned to the impact of these large external forces on the well-being of our young people. I have watched it unfold over many years and it is with a heavy heart that I admit that we are now beginning to see broad mental health impacts of climate-related anxiety. This young generation is the very first to live through year after year of worsening conditions, with more public awareness, than any prior generation. Indeed, it has been young people, like Greta Thunberg, Isra Hirsi, Xiuhtezctal Martinez, Luisa Neubauer, and a number of other climate activists who have been most successful in raising awareness and leading the charge. In March 2019, an estimated 1.6 million youth in 125 countries publicly voiced demands for climate action. While these actions have contributed to the doubling of newspaper climate change-related citations between 2014 and 2020, they have done little to curb the very real and existential dangers of climate change for all life on our planet.

Not only are these trends sad and concerning, they are already exerting significant and sobering psychological impact. Over 75% of Americans report worry about climate change effects, with about a quarter indicating that they are “alarmed”–twice as many as in 2017. Climate-related concerns are especially acute for youth, who anticipate interruption to many of primary life milestones that require functional social, economic, political, and environmental infrastructure, such as stable employment, family-supportive environments, and a future they can plan for. For example, 6 in 10 youths reported being very or extremely worried about climate change and 84% were at least moderately worried. Nearly half said that their feelings (sadness, anxiety, anger, powerlessness, guilt, and helplessness) negatively affected their daily life. Over three-quarters find the future frightening. 

While it is reflexive to assign such feelings to the general “mental health disorder” bucket (in the sense that they might be remedied or at least lessened by professional attention), such responses further exacerbate the social negligence and denial that accompanies all things climate change-related. Instead, climate anxiety is best understood as an emotionally and cognitively functional response to the existential threats that climate change poses. Instead of issuing mass referrals for mental health support, it is important for society to turn that energy toward addressing the threat itself.

This does not negate the likelihood that many youth (and adults) will need individual support to manage the feelings that arise in response to climate-related stress, since such worry has already been linked to increases in substance use and suicidal ideation. The sense of powerlessness, grief, and fear can be profoundly disruptive, particularly for youth unaccustomed to the depth and complexity of such feelings. And, while all planetary citizens are at risk for both the effects and emotions that accompany climate change, the most damaging effects of climate change will disproportionately impact those who have been historically and systematically disadvantaged and oppressed

What Can We Do?

While the challenges facing our global community are serious and daunting, there are meaningful and effective steps we can take as individuals and communities to buffer the mental health impact of climate anxiety. 

Individuals and families can assist themselves and the young people in their lives by enhancing capacity in three broad areas: 

  1. validating and supporting youth experience and feelings
  2. promoting resilience
  3. assisting youth in taking meaningful action 

Learn more about each of these areas, with specific tips and information, here.

Adults can find additional climate change statistics here, learn how to talk with their children about climate change here, and discover additional ideas for supporting productive climate change action here. They can also educate themselves further about anxiety, depression, and how to protect youth mental health by visiting JED’s Mental Health Resource Center.

Providing Shelter in the Storm

Fortunately, compared to when I was young, climate change has slowly started to occupy a more central role in government policymaking. Acknowledging its existing disruption to health and well-being is a critical step toward creating viable and sustainable plans for adaptation. 

As a parent to two young adults with future hopes and dreamshopes and dreams that depend on a stable planet, economy, and social orderit pains me to imagine what the future might hold for them. Previous generations, including my own, have failed to protect their future. And because of our inaction, it’s young people who have stepped up to become central actors in the environmental political arena. 

This is one example of how young people are “adultified”in this case, they are expected to become instrumental leaders for change, or even humanity’s “ultimate saviors.” Though the public may applaud young activists for their energy, vision, and coordinated action, it is critical that adults do not leave all of the work behind. 

As worsening mental health trends show, young people are in vital need of adult mentorship and support. My call to action today is for  adults to step up more fully in mitigating climate change damage and collateral mental health effects.In the realm of climate change efforts, that might include seeing proactive contributions from individual adult role models in their lives; political leadership in building, preserving, and maintaining critical systems and infrastructures; and systemic protection of the world’s precious, life-preserving resources. I believe this is the only way to ensure that we achieve what we need to do for our planet’s sake while also protecting young people at this pivotal moment in time.

Janis Whitlock has worked in the area of adolescent and young adult mental health, resilience and wellbeing for over 30 years. She is dedicated to bridging science, practice, and lived experience wisdom in ways that inform, enhance and support the human capacity to thrive. She has experience as a frontline provider and program developer and, for the past two decades, as a researcher, educator, author, and public speaker in these and related areas. As the founder and director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery and the co-founder of the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury, she has deep expertise in areas of self-injury and related mental health challenges, including suicide, depression and anxiety. She earned a doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Cornell University, a Masters of Public Health from UNC Chapel Hill, and a BA from the University of California at Berkeley.

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