Supporting Youth Mental Health in an Era of Global Climate Change

Young people feel the effects of climate anxiety every day. They are bombarded with information about climate change, and its frightening implications for their future, at school, in the news, and online. And many youth, especially those in underserved communities, experience the acute effects of climate injustice on a daily basis. Their physical and mental health are compromised by climate-related natural disasters and carbon-related pollution. These issues weren’t caused by Gen Z, and it’s both unjust and unrealistic to expect Gen Z to solve them alone. Fighting climate injustice requires intergenerational participation. We have the opportunity to support the mental health and psychological resilience of Gen Z-ers, particularly youth of color, as they navigate the impacts of climate change, by co-designing relevant social and emotional resources with them. The Hopelab Studio team recently explored the intersection of climate change and youth mental health, speaking with young activists, climate psychologists, and clinicians.

Climate Activism and Mental Health – Hannah’s Story

When Hannah Estrada, a 19-year-old Education and Organizing Coordinator for the Oakland, California-based environmental justice organization Youth vs. Apocalypse, realized she needed to prioritize her health, she was feverish – too sick to leave her room or even fully lift her arms above her head. Yet she felt compelled to keep organizing, taking interviews from bed, and remotely coordinating a protest for more than 40,000 people.

She remembers the moment when she started questioning this approach, telling us, “I was on the radio with this older lady who had been an organizer, and my voice was really raspy. She could hear in my voice how sick I was. And she had said something along the lines of the climate movement isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. You need to be here for the long run. And we need you for the long run. So you really need to take care of yourself. And that was the first time I was connecting dots as to–if I want to be an organizer, if I want to continue to do this work, I need to learn how to take care of myself and my body.”

sketched portrait of a person with glasses

“And that was the first time I was connecting dots as to–if I want to be an organizer, if I want to continue to do this work, I need to learn how to take care of myself and my body.”

-Hannah Estrada, age 19

This problem is further compounded by the lack of accessible and relevant U.S.-based socioemotional resources for coping with climate anxiety. Young people regularly receive media messages about a bleak climate future, so it’s not surprising that in a large international survey, 75% of Gen Z youth reported feeling that ‘the future is frightening’. Likewise, while some young people learn about the science of climate change in school, they typically aren’t taught strategies for coping with the distress this knowledge evokes. This is a problem because as Caroline Hickman, a climate-aware child and adolescent psychotherapist and lecturer at the University of Bath explained, young people haven’t developed the same emotional defenses as adults. “Children can’t rationalize like adults,” explained Hickman, “So, they either stay aware and awake to trauma and pain, or they shut down. And they shut down not because they’re not feeling enough, but because they’re feeling too much.”

This observation resonates with Hannah’s experiences when she first learned about environmental injustice in Oakland and its intersections with climate change. She shared with us, “I was in this program at Girls Inc, in Oakland, and the coordinator was teaching us about environmental racism and food deserts. And it was the first time that I was learning that communities of color, specifically low-income communities of color, statistically we’re disproportionately dealing with heavy pollution and other issues…When I was learning, I was like, ‘Why isn’t this on the news? Why aren’t people talking about this? Why am I 15 years old, I’ve lived all my life here, and I’m just now learning this?’ It made me really upset.”

illustration of arms in protest with signs, hope, action, community

Illustration by Julie Tinker

Resources and Opportunities to Support Psychological Resilience

While there are social and emotional resources for coping with climate distress – they are largely designed by and for adults and aren’t centered around the intersectional injustices that communities like Hannah’s face. Acknowledging these gaps allows for the opportunity to co-create relevant and supportive resources for Gen Z youth, particularly youth of color. From our exploratory research and conversations with young activists, climate psychologists, and clinicians we have three recommendations for how to move forward.

  1. Acknowledge that action alone isn’t an antidote to climate anxiety. As many of the young activists and researchers we interviewed attested to, acting from a place of urgency and fear isn’t sustainable over the long run. Activism is crucial, but it needs to be paired with emotional validation, community resources, and support in coping with climate distress.
  2. Embed resources for coping with climate distress into the places young people are already spending time, including schools and community-based organizations. As Leslie Davenport, psychotherapist and author of “Emotional Resilience in the Era of Climate Change” told us, “I want (climate resilience) resources to live beyond traditional therapy…I would like to see it where people already gather. What if resiliency tools were built into climate advocacy organizing meetings? What if they were available at the gym?”
  3. Involve young people–especially youth from low-income communities and communities of color–in participatory research and design processes to create resources for climate distress that discuss intersectional forms of injustice (e.g. environmental racism, food insecurity, community safety), and center equity.

Watch our webinar (50 mins)

Learn more about Hopelab’s explorations into the intersection of climate change and youth mental health.

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