When we talk about climate change, we think about endangered species, rising ocean levels, and pollution. But we don’t often think about mental health.
We don’t think about how teenagers feel about growing up in a world where our planet seems to be hurtling towards a doomed future. We don’t think about how these complex emotions they feel impacts their lives. We see the numerous child activists in the spotlight who feel motivated to change the world, but we don’t think about the other side of that spectrum. But we have to face the facts and realize that a new problem is arising due to climate change; a seriously debilitating “climate anxiety” among youth.
“What does it mean for a generation of young people to be experiencing such existential dread?” says Lian Zeitz, co-founder of the Climate Mental Health Network, in an article from Education Week about climate anxiety among teens and the education system's unpreparedness for this issue.
Numerous studies have been published lately that show that a large number of children feel extremely worried about the state of the planet, and find this crushing anxiety interferes with their daily lives. With the existence of social media, it’s easy to feel hopeless and depressed over the current state of affairs simply by scrolling through your phone for a few hours. One study published in The Lancet Planetary Health reported that 59% of individuals aged 16-25 were extremely worried about climate change, and that the daily life of 45% were negatively affected by these feelings.
“I feel like there’s generally a lot of hopelessness among people my age,” says 16 year old high school junior Croix Hill in the Education Week article. She goes on to explain that when she talks to her peers, some of them claim that they won’t even have a planet in 50 years, so what does it matter? This is concerning, and it’s clear that teachers aren’t prepared to have conversations with their students about this issue.
“Just to address climate change in the context of science isn’t addressing the social emotional and social science aspect of the crisis,” says vice president at the Education Development Center Chelsea Goddard in the Education Week article. And she’s right.
In order for us to tackle climate change completely, we need to change our approach. We can’t just teach students the facts of the matter. While some students feel motivated to change things after hearing the consequences of global warming, some students feel completely hopeless after all the facts and news have been thrown in their faces. Students feel a crushing anxiety over various things, including the idea of having kids or even what college they want to attend. Instead of getting involved in activism, they feel stressed and anxious about the future, and feel that it’ll only get worse no matter what.
“When I talk to young people, [...] they’re so stressed out about their future that they don’t think it’s fair or responsible to imagine putting another person in that situation as it gets worse,” says author and human and planetary health postdoctoral fellow Britt Wray in the Education Week article.
We need to address students’ climate anxiety, and provide them with solutions. This includes protests, petitions, and mental health support. Showing students that even small, individual actions can make a difference is crucial. In order to get more of our youth involved in climate activism, we need to show them that it’s worth something in the first place. Addressing climate anxiety is a step in the right direction.