OHA: Climate change anxiety plays large role in youth mental health crisis

Youth protesters at the Portland Youth Climate Strike protest earlier this year. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

Youth are playing a major role in Oregon’s climate movement, but the flip side of their admirable passion and activism prowess is a looming mental health crisis.

A report released last week from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) shines light on this crisis. While its conclusion won’t be revelatory to people involved in climate work, its insights provide legitimacy to an issue that has not gotten the attention it deserves.

The report, written by OHA’s public health division, categorizes the different causes and effects of climate change-induced mental health issues. There are a multitude of experiences youth have that will inform how they react to the crisis. People who have experienced climate-related disasters, like the wildfires that devastated Oregon in September 2020, will probably have a more different mental health response than someone whose wellbeing has been impacted over an extended period time by chronic climate stressors like drought or poor air quality. The report also addresses “climate anxiety,” which authors define as general fear and worry about the effect climate change is having on the planet.

“I think this report has the potential to make people think more… Just knowing that you’re not alone and a lot of other young people are feeling the same and having similar emotions can feel really good.”

-Ukiah Halloran-Steiner

Then there’s the dynamic between young people and well-meaning adults.

“Adults may remark in a well-intentioned way that they are inspired by the passion and determination of youth in advocating for action on climate change,” the report states. “However, youth may perceive that as adults alleviating themselves of the responsibility and placing it on youth.”

Young people have never been able to live without fear of the climate crisis, and they feel ignored by people in power who are not acting quickly enough to help avoid the worst effects of global warming. They’re not wrong to feel this way, either. While powerful adults have heralded youth climate activists like Greta Thunberg as a prophet come to save the world, they’re not actually acting on their pleas for policy change.

Young people in Portland who have been involved in the youth movement against the Oregon Department of Transportation’s proposed I-5 freeway expansion have done a lot to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of transportation. But the work takes an emotional toll.

Ukiah Halloran-Steiner, one of the leaders of the Youth vs ODOT movement, told me she became passionate about climate activism after the Labor Day fires in 2020, which were startling and scary. She said becoming involved in activist work has allowed her to talk to like-minded people and find support.

“Just knowing that you’re not alone and a lot of other young people are feeling the same and having similar emotions can feel really good,” Halloran-Steiner said.

But she’s skeptical this report will do much to spur action.

Youth climate activists outside ODOT Region 1 headquarters in June 2021. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“I think this report has the potential to make people think more. But the report alone isn’t doing anything, it’s just informing other people about what a lot of people already know,” she said.

In the foreword to the report, Governor Kate Brown wrote a strong statement acknowledging the frustration some youth feel when trying to influence policymakers. But the Governor has so far shirked away from calls to take a stand against freeway expansions and youth climate activists want her to take a more aggressive stance.

At 25, I’m older than most of the youth surveyed in this study. But I strongly relate to the feelings they expressed. I remember learning about global warming when I was probably 8 or 9, and as someone with an anxious disposition to begin with, the threat of climate change seriously impacted the way I saw the world. I didn’t find comfort in talking to adults, who I found either dismissive or inappropriately alarming. My most memorable wake-up call was in sixth grade, when my science teacher spent the entire year teaching us about the greenhouse effect and showing us presentations and documentaries about the dying earth that sent me into panic and guilt spirals. I suppose this feeling was an impetus to action for me, but it has come at a cost.

While there’s only so much young people can do on their own to influence climate policy, the report has suggestions for things people can do to keep themselves mentally well while dealing with such a heavy issue. Among other suggestions, the report echoes Halloran-Steiner’s positive experience joining an activist community, saying many youth have reported finding other people to work with on climate action has been significantly helpful.

“If I need to talk to someone, I can go to people, we can all be mad together and find out what to do,” one youth said. “Meeting people like you all gives me hope.”

Read the report here (PDF).

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Opus the Poet
10 days ago

Can I just say this senior citizen is getting annoyed about lack of action on climate change? We’re supposed to be in a mini-Ice Age cycle now since about 1960, but because we’ve dumped so much CO2 into the atmosphere we are seeing a global rise in temperatures. I mean I read global glacier science fiction for like a decade when I was young, then I was reading stuff about “What happened to the next Ice Age?” in some of the sci-fi magazines I was reading, and then it was all about the ozone layer just vanishing and people wearing SPF 100 sunscreen for a while and then I stopped buying those magazines because I was like really poor and going back to school with a wife and three kids.

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
10 days ago

Human overpopulation on a dying planet. When animals overpopulate nature rebalances with a die-off. Some population experts expect a 50% die-off of humans worldwide. That means about 150 million Americans, 4 billion worldwide. It will be animal survival for humanity with future wars fought over food and water.

The interesting part is what rises out of the ashes, and will new, more intelligent species evolve. Will the octopus replace humans as a dominant species?

soren
soren
10 days ago
Reply to  Mike Quigley

Some population experts expect a 50% die-off of humans worldwide

Which “experts”?

PS: This kind of malthusian doomerism is another form of climate science denial.

kernals12
kernals12
10 days ago

Maybe we should stop telling people that a 2 degree increase in global temperatures over 1900 levels will cause the apocalypse. I also find it hard to believe there’s a “Climate anxiety” crisis. Surveys consistently show the general public doesn’t care.

I think that future generations will look upon the climate scare the same way we look upon Y2K

X
X
10 days ago
Reply to  kernals12

Y2K was a discreet technical problem that was well within the power of humans to fix. It was understood and undisputed. If mistakes were made they were largely on the side of over-reaction.

There was no powerful vested interest arguing against fixing the errant dating conventions in our software. It got done.

You name the 2° Centigrade difference as if it were a matter of taking a sweater along, or not. Trivial? No! –because it’s the average of all weather events everywhere and that average is moved most by extreme events both above and below the mean. The amount of energy pumped into the biosphere to heat its mass by 2°C is beyond your imagination.

Frank Perillo
Frank Perillo
10 days ago
Reply to  kernals12

Making people believe they need to wear a mask outside or they’ll die probably plays into their anxiety a bit too.

Dwk
Dwk
10 days ago
Reply to  kernals12

Of course it is… 100 people died a year ago when it hit 116 here, totally normal since it has never happened before,,nothing to worry about…

Fish, birds and insects
Fish, birds and insects
10 days ago
Reply to  kernals12

If Y2K caused computers to suddenly sprout arms and legs, grow 100 feet tall, and go on a rampage, then it might be a more fitting comparison to the widespread and immediate destruction that is currently happening before our eyes. There are countless experiences I had as a kid that I would be unable to share if I had kids now, and Ive barely been alive for 30 years. As a lifelong farming hobbyist and casual ecologist Ive already personally witnessed hundreds of extinctions, including ones with severe and direct implications to human life (on top of the indirect implications).

I dont understand how anyone, let alone senators 3 times my age, can go outside at least once as a child and then again as an adult and not see an alarming difference, it should be as obvious as night and day. I suppose there are millions of people who have no outdoor experience beyond tailgating in a city park, which might have had no healthy native species in it to begin with. I dont think these are bad people, I just think they should stay in their lane when it comes to important policy decisions; decisions so important that people spend their entire lives, often with poor pay, sometimes risking great harm (like falling into a volcano or being buried alive in a glacier) to collect just 1 piece of solid evidence. I also have met scientists who took their own lives recently, after decades of doing the most important work in the world, to be rewarded with insults and personal threats as they watch everything they love, indeed everything that all of humanity ever loved, being willfully destroyed.

All of this could have been *easily* prevented by simply taking the most bare basic responsibility (did your mom teach you to clean up after yourself?) and using new and improved energy technology as soon as it becomes a smart investment for capitolists; instead, our anti-capitolist corporatocracy is allowed to buy all the intellectual rights to new technology to effectiely ban it, so they can lazily keep pushing the old product with no need for competition or innovation. Money is supposed to be exchanged for goods and services, and yet, this practice is a blatant dis-service to the public trust money represents. They think they can make a mess and then pay someone else to clean it up, but what if the next person does the same thing? The mess just goes around in a circle, and the money that went towards cleaning has effectively lost all value. It takes a profoundly broken system to celebrate the outright destruction of invested wealth, let alone the lost potential if it had been invested properly. It only happens because we allow it to: we need term limits and campaign finance regulation in Congress NOW!

Current members of our government (in both parties) are on the record stating their willingness to rob and abuse us, the records can be found at the official library of congress, documents of which are available in person, online, and by written request. You can also ask any senator or representative to verify what did or did not happen with their colleagues during an official session, so long as the information is not classified. They are required to tell the truth about this specifically, even if they lie about everything else the rest of the time. Im sick of excuses for why people dont have accurate information about what happens in Congress, you are entitled to this information and tax dollars are being spent to increase your access to it.

Similarly, information on climate science is available, you can even help participate in experiments and collect data yourself, or run your own repeats of past experiments to verify they are correct. Science is the ultimate tool for the common people to impose reality on corrupt elites. They will tell you that science is a cult where the math is too hard to understand and can only be respected by blind faith, they will say that only sheep believe in science… Dont let them insult your intelligence, or imply that humanity got where it is today by following blindly.

Damien
Damien
9 days ago
Reply to  kernals12

I think that future generations will look upon the climate scare the same way we look upon Y2K

To be bluntly frank: I suspect it’s more likely future generations will look upon folks like yourself in such a light you’d be happy not to be around to see.