Imagine this: at 16 years old, you love the rush of kicking a ball across a soccer field. It’s the physicality and teamwork in soccer that’s been getting you through the stress of your parents’ divorce and helping you manage the anxiety of an intense high school course load. Except on days when nearby wildfires make the air quality too bad for you to play outside, because the smoke exacerbates your asthma. (When your mom tells you there used to be wildfire seasons, you’re not quite sure what to think—now it’s always fire season)
Or this: at 12 years old, you’ve been on medication for ADHD for years. It helps you function in school, as does channeling your boundless energy into outdoor play. But the medication that helps your life work makes you more sensitive to heat, and more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses when temperatures rise. When the heat waves come, as they increasingly do, you’re stuck indoors with parents who struggle to keep their cool while you’re bouncing off the walls.
Or, this: you’re 14 years old and learned about climate change in school a few years back, from a teacher who told you in a calm voice that the glaciers were melting and the polar bears were dying, just before dismissing you for recess. You couldn’t look your favorite stuffed animal—a small, bedraggled white bear named Igloo—in the eyes that night. Since then, you’ve been worried about the melting glaciers and the dying animals and the entire world more days than not. When your dad sees your distress and suggests you try to lighten up a bit, you’re certain he doesn’t understand what’s at stake, and the gulf between the two of you grows wider.
For far too many young people and their families, these scenarios aren’t imagined—they’re a daily reality. In a myriad of ways, climate change is affecting young people’s mental health.
A 2021 Lancet study surveying over 10,000 young people around the world found that 75% of youth think the future is frightening, and 45% of respondents reported that thoughts about climate change have a negative impact on their daily lives. A recent report on climate change and mental health from ecoAmerica documented numerous pathways for impact, such as the stress and trauma of experiencing natural disasters, climate-related food insecurity, and interrupted schooling. Research has shown that high levels of childhood stress, like the stress of experiencing a natural disaster or displacement, can affect long-term brain development. And when children are exposed to traumatic events, they may experience PTSD and depression to a greater degree than adults.
In spite of formidable odds, a determined generation of youth climate activists haven’t given up on their right to a livable, healthy future, and they’re finding allies around the world.
Some of these allies are in the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier this month, Rep. Mike Thompson (CA-05) introduced House Resolution 975 (H. Res. 975): “Expressing the mental health impacts of recurrent climate-related disasters on youth.” Written by California high school students Madigan Traversi and Giselle Perez, both 16-year-old students at Sonoma Academy, this resolution describes the litany of ways that climate change’s increasingly frequent harms affect young people’s mental health. Traversi and Perez are student leaders with Schools for Climate Action, a grassroots, nonpartisan, intergenerational campaign whose mission is to empower schools to advocate for climate action. The resolution supports expanding funding for youth-centered climate education, resilience, and adaptation projects that benefit mental health, such as:
- Incorporating mental health into existing disaster preparation efforts
- Funding and conducting community-wide vulnerability assessments, including assessing the impacts of local income disparities on environmental inequity
- Expanding local, place-based, mutual aid networks that offer mental health support for youth
- Reducing the stigma associated with mental health treatment, through engaging in education and outreach efforts
- Reducing cost and increasing access for mental health treatment, such as through mobile forms of mental health care
- Broadening insurance and Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement for mental health care
- Directly funding school districts that need resources for mental health support for children and families in the wake of ongoing climate disasters
Perhaps most importantly, the resolution calls upon Congress to take immediate, effective action on climate change “to protect the mental health of current and future youth.” Co-sponsored by Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14), the resolution has already found widespread support in over 80 endorsements from organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and Moms Clean Air Force.
While resolutions like H. Res. 975 don’t carry the force of law, the authors of the resolution hope that it will be a precursor for law and a catalyst for the social movement growing around climate change and mental health. “Resolutions can galvanize wide-ranging support and raise public awareness on an issue,” says Nancy Metzger-Carter, director of Schools for Climate Action. “Resolutions are often cited when making policy decisions. For example, our local county is considering banning new gas stations, and cited the climate emergency resolution as the basis for the policy.”
Metzger-Carter continues: “With H. Res. 975, Madigan and Giselle wanted to educate Congress on the intersection of youth mental health and the climate crisis with the latest research. This research affirmed much of what they were experiencing here in Northern California—trauma from repeated climate disasters, disparities in access for students, and an overall sense of climate anxiety in their peers.”
The Schools for Climate Action leaders are encouraging students around the country to discuss H. Res. 975 and the emerging research around climate change and mental health with their lawmakers. They hope that the resolution will gain broad bipartisan support, as climate change impacts will affect youth across party lines. Youth and adult allies can reach out to Schools for Climate Action through this form for support in organizing meetings with their lawmakers, as well as asking their representatives to co-sponsor H. Res. 975 through calls, emails, and social media.
Though no resolution or policy will be able to ease all the ways climate change can and will impact our mental health, the youth and adult allies behind H. Res. 975 are daring to imagine a future in which mental health is treated with justice, equity, and care. With our support, it’s a future that’s well within our reach.