Climate Change and Eco-Anxiety in Youth
No. 137; March 2022
Eco-anxiety is defined as a fear and sense of doom about the possibly irreversible climate change disaster that is occurring in our world.
What is climate change?
Climate change is the overall change in weather patterns from an increase in the Earth’s temperature. Healthcare experts agree this can affect human health, including mental health. The cause of climate change today is mostly due to humans burning fossil fuels for energy. This leads to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. High levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then causes the Earth’s temperature to go up. These changes are often referred to as “global warming.” Climate change has also led to other extreme weather events such as destructive hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes, wildfires, and severe winter storms.
Climate change affects people differently in different parts of the world. For example, extreme heat, poor air quality, wildfires, floods on the coast, and droughts are things that happen due to a worsening climate. These disasters can affect families and children with limited resources even more.
Major changes to weather patterns caused by a warming planet affects health in many ways. These disasters may require people to move, leave their communities, schools, friends and families. There is also a direct trauma that happens for youth surviving a disaster like a major storm or wildfire. Youth who do not experience a climate emergency may still have social or emotional changes related to this world-wide problem.
How does climate change affect youth mental health?
- Youth may have to live through a frightening experience like an extreme weather event, and they may fear for their safety and have strong reactions that last even after the weather event is over.
- Evacuations or closures for weather or fire events can disrupt school, access to medications, loss of prized possessions and pets, and community connections.
- When youth think about climate change, they may experience feelings of anxiety, anger, helplessness, and guilt.
- Many children and teens follow the news through digital connections, so they are much more aware of changes in their broader world. This can worsen their anxiety.
- Many youths feel especially affected by climate change and wonder about their futures in this world, and may have anger towards previous generations for their actions leading to climate change.
What can be noticed in youth affected by climate change?
Anxiety related to climate change may come in many forms. Anxiety can be normal and appropriate given the severity of climate change. Youth may want to talk about environmental issues and their concerns about the future, and may want to engage in social activism. Families and young people should seek out help when anxiety affects their daily life. For instance, some people experience panic attacks, trouble sleeping, extreme separation anxiety, or obsessive thinking related to climate change.
What can parents and caregivers do for youth?
- Listen carefully to their thoughts and feelings about climate change.
- Understand that youth may have different feelings about climate change than adults, given their view of the future.
- Tell the truth about climate change in a way that the child or teen will understand.
- Be aware of the kind of information or news the child or teen is seeing or listening to.
- Support their desire to make lifestyle changes or help them take action.
- Monitor for any warning signs such as very high anxiety levels, fatigue, trouble sleeping, negative thoughts about a future, or obsessive thinking that interferes with their daily lives.
- Discuss a family safety plan that can be used during a severe weather event.
- Following extreme weather events, check in with your child or youth about any anxiety, and offer additional support if needed.