When I became pregnant with twins in 2015, plenty of people warned me about the risks of postpartum depression and anxiety. With every prenatal visit, my doctor offered a mental health screening and encouraged me to arrange plenty of support at home after the twins were born. Being a natural planner, I took this challenge seriously. I planned for childcare and emotional care. I put phone numbers for both babysitters and therapists on speed dial in my phone. I prepared as proactively as I could, or so I thought, for the mental health challenges of early motherhood.
But nothing prepared me for the impact that climate change would have on my mental health within the first few years of my children’s lives.
As I began to emerge from the fog of the first two years of parenthood with multiples, I started to notice more and more troubling climate headlines in the news. In 2018, Hurricane Florence battered my native North Carolina, and images of my mother’s coastal hometown underwater were splashed across the national news. I wondered if the beach I’d anticipated many happy family vacations on would still be intact by the time the twins were my age. Just weeks after Hurricane Florence, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report stating in no uncertain terms that there were only 12 years left to avert the worst of future climate catastrophes. Those 12 years, I realized, were the same years of my twins’ childhood.
What kind of world, I wondered, had I brought my children into?
A sense of isolation accompanied my early experiences of climate grief and anxiety. I felt frightened by everything I learned about climate change. It broke my heart to realize that corporate greed and the burning of fossil fuels were directly harming children’s health and filled me with rage that governments weren’t acting quickly or decisively enough to protect our children’s futures. But despite how alarming climate change felt, almost no one in my social circles seemed to be talking about it.
Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my distress. According to the Yale Program on Climate Communication, 65% of Americans are worried about climate change—but only 35% talk about it even occasionally. More and more, research confirms that worry about climate change is having an increasing impact on Americans’ mental health, contributing to anxiety, depression, and PTSD. As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, more and more people are experiencing the stress and trauma of direct impacts from wildfires, heat waves, hurricanes, droughts, and flooding. And as with all the impacts of climate change, the mental health effects disproportionately impact communities that are already vulnerable, such as communities of color and youth.
For parents, there are unique dimensions to the experience of climate distress. Parenting can be challenging under the best of circumstances, but it can feel like an impossible task to navigate the responsibilities of caring for children while worrying about their future. Parents are also usually the front-line responders for our kids’ emotional needs, and youth are worried about climate change, too: a recent large-scale survey of young people from around the world found that 84% of youth are at least moderately worried about climate change, with 59% reporting being “very” or “extremely” worried. Parenting is hard; parenting in an age of climate change is harder.
The good news is that parents around the world are mobilizing in unprecedented numbers to stand up to climate polluters, demand bold climate action from our governments, and build stronger, more climate-resilient communities. While many of the changes that would support parents’ overall mental health need to happen on a structural level—such as passing legislation that includes financial support for child-raising—there are things that individuals can do to cope, as well. Being an active part of a climate community, like Moms Clean Air Force, is one of the best ways to combat the feelings of isolation that can accompany climate distress. I joined Moms Clean Air Force because I care about how climate change is affecting all aspects of our health. I hope you’ll join us too.
Please read our new fact sheet, Climate Change and Mental Health, to learn more about how climate change is affecting our mental health and what you can do as a parent to cope.