Anxiety around climate change adding to mental health issues among America’s youth

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Gen Zers and millennials are more anxious about climate change than their Baby Boomer counterparts. Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

By Domenic Purdy

The American public is becoming increasingly anxious about climate change, especially younger generations. 

Sixty eight percent of Americans feel climate change is affecting their mental health, according to a 2020 American Psychiatric Association poll. That number rose by 21 percentage points compared to 2019. 

America’s youth are especially concerned: Sixty-seven percent of Generation Z (18-23 years) and 63% of millennials (24-39 years) are somewhat or very concerned about the impact of climate change on their mental health. Just 42% of Baby Boomers (56-74 years) and 58% of Gen Xers (40-55 years) feel the same, the poll found.  

Experts credit the increased stress, in part, to exposure to media about climate change.

Joshua Morganstein, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland, said that the more people engage in and expose themselves to the media, the more symptoms of distress they report.

“Distress is transmitted around the world by media and social media much more effectively now than say 30 years ago,” he said.

Morganstein served 16 years in the U.S. Air Force working in community mental health. Now, he studies the mental health effects of climate-related disasters and has contributed to research like the 2016 Climate and Health Assessment, where he wrote a chapter on the effects of natural disasters on mental health and wellbeing.

He explained that being inundated with bleak news about the future makes people feel more helpless against the issue. People are less likely to take action against an issue if they become overwhelmed with stress and messages about how terrifying something is, Morganstein said. 

“We know from studying these things that when you tell someone that something is so unmanageable that their brain tends to shut off or stop responding to it,” he said. “People will have a more emotional response to things that seem much smaller because their brain is telling them that it’s more manageable.” 

Climate change is an issue that’s hard to comprehend and process for many. Some feel defeated by news about the severity of the impacts in the coming years, like 2016 NASA projections that see some areas of New Orleans sinking up to 2 inches annually.  

“I would say it definitely instilled a defeatist attitude towards the future, almost to the point of nihilism,” said Gabriel Rodriguez, 20, a Baton Rouge Community College economics student.

Louisiana State University pre-med student Sagar Patel, 20, said climate change has negatively impacted his mental health. 

“I’m sure I’m not the only one being negatively affected by the constant change,” Patel said. “With the climate negatively changing every year, it feels like an addition on the platter of weights dragging my mental health down.”

Others, like LSU disaster science and management student Jervey Cheveallier, 20, say they aren’t worried about climate change impacts yet. 

“Really the only effects I directly see from it are gas prices and fishing,” Cheveallier said. “I enjoy a good hurricane. I like a good storm, so it’s not really affecting me mentally. I can absolutely see how it affects others. Maybe 20 years down the road it’ll be unfortunate, but right now, I’m just doing my thing.”  

Some choose to ignore the problem as it causes them too much worry.  

“I try not to think about it too much because it stresses me out a lot,” said Zoe Soulier, a 19-year-old anthropology student from Gonzales, Louisiana. “I feel like the older generation really set bad ways into place to where it’s too late for us to change it.”

Natural disasters made worse by climate change, like hurricanes, wildfires and flooding, will impact mental health too. Morganstein said the psychological effects these disasters leave are more long lasting and impactful than the physical destruction. 

“The psychological footprint is almost always much bigger than the physical footprint of a disaster itself,” he said. “For psychological effects, you don’t have to be at the physical disaster site to be affected.” 

The goal of Morganstein’s work is to equip communities with the tools to minimize the impact of these effects. Some of these tools include providing psychological first aid to communities impacted by disasters, like enhancing sense of safety, calming, self or community efficacy, social connectedness and hope. 

“Research has found that these five elements are important to improve people’s functioning and enhance their sense of wellbeing and may actually be protective in reducing the likelihood of developing disorders and other dysfunction after disasters,” Morganstein said. 

Rodriguez keeps a hopeful, yet realistic attitude toward the future.  “I know we can overcome it, which shines through the dread,” Rodriguez said. “Nonetheless, our margins of error are slim.” 

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