Learning about all the ways that climate change is impacting the planet can feel overwhelming. No part of the world has been left untouched. And a lot of people have been — and will be — harmed by the effects of rising greenhouse gases. Many of those impacts will clearly hurt the physical health of people, such as by aggravating asthma or heart disease. But climate change can be bad for mental health as well. And children and teens are especially at risk, psychologists now report.
Climate change affects people in many ways. Direct impacts can hit hard. Extreme weather and sea-level rise can destroy homes and property. People can suffer physical harm from extreme events as well. Even if someone doesn’t have these losses, they may worry about what could happen in the future. Depression, anxiety, post-trauma stress, sleep disorders and other problems can result.
The brains of children and teens are still growing and developing, notes Lise Van Susteren. She’s a psychologist in Washington, D.C. and an expert on the mental-health effects of climate change. Those growing brains make young people “particularly vulnerable to environmental stressors,” she wrote last year in an expert report for a court case. Youths in that case have sued the U.S. government for failure to take action on climate change.
How Earth’s climate has been morphing can easily disrupt “normal” life. For instance, wildfires last year obliterated the town of Paradise, Calif. Kids and teens not only lost their homes but also their schools. Many had to move away from their home town and friends. Young people may have had trouble dealing with such new situations, not to mention missed school days and dealing with their roller-coaster emotions, Van Susteren and other psychologists note.
But climate change can pose a risk to mental health even without a direct physical threat. Children and teens are generally more likely to accept the scientific consensus — widespread agreement — about humanity’s role in climate change, Van Susteren notes. Many kids also worry about how the impacts of climate change are expected to only worsen.
“They look at the generation ahead of them that could have taken action and didn’t,” she says. This can trigger feelings of anger, grief, resentment, fear, frustration and being overwhelmed. Not every young person will feel these emotions. But for many, the feelings can get in the way of their general well-being. Young people “have to let those feelings out,” she says.
How to cope
There are things teens and ‘tweens can do to cope with any negative emotions that may threaten to overwhelm them.
Those who feel negative emotions about climate change “have to let those feelings out,” Van Susteren says. “Then they have to take the energy of all those emotions and ask themselves what they think they are best at doing to correct what can be corrected.” And there’s much that young people can do.
For example, 14 year-old Milou Albrecht is an activist. Since last year, she has been one of the leaders of Australia’s school strikes for climate change. The movement began with activist Greta Thunberg, a teen in Sweden. Milou says taking part feels “empowering.”
Other students may be great teachers, researchers, letter-writers or organizers for energy-saving programs. And everyone can practice energy conservation. That helps set social norms, Van Susteren says — meaning what’s normal and socially acceptable. “So there is a job for everyone,” she says.
Keep in mind that you’re not alone. “Find you teammates, your kindred spirits,” Van Susteren recommends. These are people “who are going to go the distance with you,” she notes.
Susie Burke is a psychologist in Melbourne, Australia. She’s also Milou’s mom. Burke urges students to get out in nature. That can help restore a calm mood. It also can improve someone’s ability to focus on things, she says.
There’s also “a time to say to somebody, ‘I need help,’” Burke stresses. It might be when you can't stop crying. If you constantly think about something. If you lose interest in things that you normally enjoy. If you feel more and more angry. If you feel overwhelmed or helpless. Or if you shut yourself away from other people. If you wonder if life’s worth living.
If any of these things happen, talk with an adult who cares about you, Burke says. Any of those clues could signal stress, anxiety, depression or another problem. And if you need it, professional counseling can help you cope — not only with climate change but also with many other sources of stress.
“The most important thing,” Burke says, “is to have a sense of hope and optimism.”
anxiety A nervous reaction to events causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.
climate change Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.
consensus An opinion or conclusion shared by most, if not all, of a specific group.
conservation The act of preserving or protecting something. The focus of this work can range from art objects to endangered species and other aspects of the natural environment.
depression (in medicine) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.
disorder (in medicine) A condition where the body does not work appropriately, leading to what might be viewed as an illness. This term can sometimes be used interchangeably with disease.
disrupt (n. disruption) To break apart something; interrupt the normal operation of something; or to throw the normal organization (or order) of something into disorder.
generation A group of individuals (in any species) born at about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans.
greenhouse gas A gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing heat. Carbon dioxide is one example of a greenhouse gas.
mental health A term for someone’s emotional, psychological and social well-being. It refers to how people behave on their own and how they interact with others. It includes how people make choices, handle stress and manage fear or anxiety. Poor mental health can be triggered by disease or merely reflect a short-term response to life’s challenges. It can occur in people of any age, from babies to the elderly.
norms The attitudes, behaviors or achievements that are considered normal or conventional within a society (or segment of society — such as teens) at the present time.
physical (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are due to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).
psychologist A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behaviors.
risk The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)
social (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.
stress (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.
trauma (in medicine) An injury, often a fairly severe one. This term also can refer to a severely disturbing incident (such as witnessing a battlefield death) or memory.
tween A child just approaching his or her teenage years. Tween is a term usually used for 11- to 12-years olds.
weather Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.
Journal: S.E.L. Burke, A.V. Sanson and J. Van Hoorn. The psychological effects of climate change on children. Current Psychiatry Reports. Vol. 20, May 2018, p. 35. doi: 10.1007/s11920-018-0896-9.
Journal: L. Van Susteren. The psychological impacts of the climate crisis: A call to action. BJPsych International. Vol. 15, May 2018, p. 25. doi: 10.1192/bji.2017.40.
Court filing: Expert report of Lise Van Susteren, M.D. In Juliana v. United States. United States District Court, D. Oregon, Case 6:15-cv-01517-TC. June 28, 2018. Case filing posted online by the Columbia Law School Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.