By Mason Smith 

Climate Change & Mental Health

Climate change and its effect on mental health is something that has been widely experienced, yet hardly discussed, and even more seldom researched. As our climate changes and anxieties about what the future may look like or reactions to physical losses become more prevalent, the relationship between mental health and climate change becomes crucial to lend more discussion to. It is evident that major natural disasters have an impact on mental health, but more incremental changes in climate can also take their own toll on mental health. There are similarly different ways that climate grief can appear, whether that be through physical losses, loss of identity in a changing world, and thoughts of anticipated future losses.

Despite mental health disparities related to climate change being so prevalent, the conversations connecting the two are incredibly limited. As part of my time as an intern with 350 Colorado, I decided to conduct research to answer the following question: Do young people in Colorado perceive a relationship between their mental health and worsening climate change? In my pursuit to answer this question, I interviewed 5 young people between the ages of 14 and 20 on how they have experienced mental health as it relates to climate change.

Do young people in Colorado perceive a relationship between their mental health and worsening climate change?

Image: Chenspec, Pixabay

Every young person who I spoke to expressed uncertainty for their futures. There’s a lot that’s supposed to be decided from a really young age from what your dream job is, to whether you want to raise a family, and other idealistic images of what your future could look like. This generation, however, has grown up hearing phrases such as “climate disaster,” “rising sea levels,” and “by 2050” for their entire lives. With terms such as this being so present for this generation’s entire lives, it is difficult to create that idealistic image of the future when so much is uncertain. Overwhelmingly, when asked how they perceive their future when taking climate change into consideration, all of the participants expressed a lot of fear and uncertainty regarding their futures, and even whether one will exist at all. These feelings of hopelessness can be exhausting and scary, ultimately taking a significant toll on mental health.

At the same time, these young people expressed feeling a lot of pressure in feeling as though they are some of the only people who care about or are advocating for their own futures. When asked about conversations surrounding climate change in their homes or in school, there was an overarching narrative of them being told “you’re gonna fix it though!” and “this is how you’re gonna save the world.” There are prevalent feelings of, “we aren’t the ones who made it this way but we are the only ones invested in our own futures and in the future of our planet.” This pressure can be so incredibly frustrating and isolating, and only further burdens mental health.

A peaceful, youth lead and organized group marches from the Denver Capitol, rallying for climate justice 

Everyone who I spoke to adamantly agreed that there is a correlation between climate change and mental health; they are all living proof of this correlation. However, it’s not something that’s ever really talked about. While places such as 350 Colorado and other organizations dedicated to advocating for environmental change spark some of the conversation, not everyone has access to similar spaces. In mental health settings, there’s an emphasis on looking at a person as a whole and everything that affects them and their wellbeing – family life, friends, school, work – but the natural world is not included in that holistic view of a client.

Nearly everyone who I spoke to said that they do see a mental health provider, but they still expressed that they didn’t have a space to really talk about climate change as it relates to mental health. Generally, mental health is highly stigmatized so conversations having to do with mental health don’t happen as often as they should. However, this is such a common experience and talking about it can help people realize that they are not alone. Having these conversations can also create an environment in which people feel more comfortable seeking supportive services for their mental health.

Finally, it’s important to note that while climate change affects everyone it is definitely not in the same way or to the same extent. The voices of those affected the most are often the voices that go unheard. While we may all experience impacts of the climate crisis that weigh on our mental health, we must also recognize climate justice as a social justice issue. People of color, impoverished people, and other marginalized populations are generally impacted first and worst by the most devastating impacts, yet they’re the ones whose voices continue to go unheard. 

People at the front lines of the climate crisis do not always have a voice in fighting environmental injustices.

Additionally, we must recognize that Indigenous people lived on this land first and are the original stewards of the environment. We must listen to their voices as well and consider how they are experiencing mental health while living on land that is supposed to be theirs, that is not being treated by the examples for care that they set. People at the front lines of the climate crisis do not always have a voice in fighting environmental injustices.

Similar limitations arose when conducting this research. The interviews were advertised to people within 350 Colorado’s network and to college students, so everyone already had the privilege of being involved in climate activism in one way or another. It is imperative to center more diverse voices of those hit the hardest by climate change in continuing research.

Author and Researcher Mason Smith

Ultimately, based on the findings from this research, it is evident how much power young people have and that we play an important role in supporting them and amplifying their voices.

At the same time, it is also up to every single person working to combat the climate crisis to help alleviate the pressures placed on younger generations to “save the world.” We must all show up even if we are not the ones who will be most affected; this generation cannot carry all of the burden and pressures of doing the fighting ourselves. As we are showing up as activists, we must do so with empathy and compassion. It’s time to start having open conversations about climate change and mental health. Odds are, somebody else in your life is struggling with the same thing and you don’t even know it. Creating the space for these conversations to be had and for these experiences to be shared can create a world of difference.

Want to learn more about the connections between youth mental health and climate change? The full results of the research study can be found here. 

I encourage you to read through the quotes from the interviews, as it is important to listen to the voices of young people as we continue to advocate for a better future. Thank you to everyone who participated in the interviews and was willing to be vulnerable about your experiences with mental health and climate change. The conversation has only just begun.