As climate changes, climate anxiety rises in youth
▶ Watch Video: Kids increasingly feel “sad,” “overwhelmed” about threat of climate change
Kids often worry about much different things than their parents do. One of the big ones is climate change. Research shows most youth are “extremely worried” about it, leading to a phenomenon called climate anxiety. Kids and young adults who struggle with this can perceive they have no future or that humanity is doomed.
“We see that a lot of young people are saying, I think my life will be worse than my parents’ lives,” said Dr. Sarah Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Suffolk University in Boston.
A study published last year collected attitudes about climate change from 10,000 people across the world, aged 16-25.
In the survey, 59% of youth and young adults said they were very or extremely worried about climate change and more than 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.
“So, they know that the world is going to get to be a harder, darker, scarier place,” said Schwartz. “And imagining themselves in that world feels really scary for them.”
The study also revealed how climate change makes young people feel. In all countries surveyed, nearly 62% said they were anxious about climate change. About 67% said they were sad and afraid.
Schwartz is researching climate anxiety. She said it’s not a diagnosis, but a valid response to the current situation in the world, and her research shows that three-quarters of young people report worrying about climate change.
“I don’t think it makes sense as a disorder because, again, that one assumes that this is a psychopathology of a few rather than the majority,” said Schwartz. “And then the goal is that it is this individual disorder, where we treat at the individual level rather than address the societal issues and the environmental issues.”
“People should be talking about it more since it’s their planet,” said high school student Johanna Flores. “They should be worried about their health.”
Flores lives in Chelsea, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, where she said there is so much jet fuel, road salt and heating oil stored on the river it’s hard for some residents to even get close to the water.
“And you wouldn’t see that in a white neighborhood, like you would see a beautiful view of the water,” said 15-year-old Darien Rodriguez, who also lives in Chelsea. “You wouldn’t see any industries, any like smoke and pollution.”
The students are environmental activists at a non-profit called GreenRoots. They work alongside adults, advocating for environmental justice in their hometown by educating and empowering others to get involved.
“We’re supposed to just partake in anything we can, like if there is some sort of thing going on of planting trees, like participate in that,” said Flores. “Or if there’s some sort of event, just even a trash pickup, people should participate in that because it helps the community so much.”
With a group so focused on the environmental problems in their neighborhood, it’s no surprise that they also worry about climate change.
“It’s scary to think about what awaits the future generations and, like, the world itself,” said 16-year-old Greandoll Oliva.
“I’m very concerned because I want to be able to have kids and watch their kids grow up and have a family,” said Rodriguez. “I feel like I won’t be able to experience that just because people are careless about what they do and how they treat the environment.”
Getting involved helps
Schwartz said activism may be an effective way for kids to deal with the feelings associated with climate anxiety.
“Higher climate change anxiety is correlated with higher clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety,” said Schwartz. “But what we saw was that for young people who have high levels of climate anxiety, if they also have high levels of activism, then we didn’t see any higher levels of depression symptoms.”
Schwartz said the social aspect and peer support of activism is most likely the biggest piece to help protect against depression.
“That may mean signing petitions,” said Schwartz. “That may mean supporting other people who are the ones who are going to be the face of, you know, who are going to be going marching up to Beacon Hill over there,” said Schwartz. “So, I think the idea of working with a group.”
It could also mean building a “pop-up park” together in Chelsea, like the kids at GreenRoots have done.
“If there are more people working like this for a better future, there can be a change,” said 16-year-old Greandoll Oliva.
“It helps me deal with it, like I’m not the only one,” said 16-year-old Troy Arnold.
“There are moments where you’re just like, well, nothing’s ever going to change,” said Rodriguez. “But then there’s also that small feeling that there’s still hope that people will change, and people will come together to help save humanity.”
How you can get involved
Schwartz said when people think of activism, they often think of a protest or rally. She said there are other ways people can get involved and work with others, too. She recommends some of the following tools, guides, and resources:
Are you interested in climate activism, but not sure where to begin? You can find climate toolkits and resources here, through Our Climate.
Programs and resources
Get involved in programs to make a difference in your community, through The Climate Initiative.
Here, you can find more resources to help you act on climate change.
Join a group
Join a Sunrise Hub here. A hub is a group of young people working together in their community to stop the climate crisis, through the organization Sunrise Movement.