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Massive fires. Unbreathable air. Devastating storms. Oppressive heat. Each year brings new extremes and terrifying evidence that we are in the midst of a climate crisis. We know that the effects of this are threatening our lives and physical health, but what are they doing to our mental health? This is the specter of “climate anxiety.”
Late this past year, The Lancet published a massive, world-wide survey of young people and their feelings about climate change. Scientists polled these people about their emotions surrounding climate change, such as sadness, anger, or powerlessness. They asked how climate change affected daily life or their plans for the future, including whether to have kids or how their family will fare in years to come. Researchers also asked if young people felt their concerns were being taken seriously, especially by their governments. This included if people felt they could trust their leaders and if they felt listened to and protected.
Across 10 different countries, 10,000 people aged 16 through 25 answered this massive survey, and their dismal view of the future astounded researchers. About 3 in every 5 felt “extremely” or “very” concerned about the climate crisis. Almost half said it affected their every day lives.
Negative emotions far outweighed positive ones. Less than a third were optimistic, while 3 out of 4 feared the coming years. Over 83% felt humans had failed to care for the planet, and 56% considered the human race to be “doomed.”
In this same vein, respondents largely felt that people around them, especially their governments, were ignoring their concerns. About 2 out of 3 felt their leaders did not respect their worries or take enough necessary action to combat climate change. They felt “betrayed,” as the report put it, and that their governments were “failing young people across the world.”
Despite all this, some of you may still doubt the significance of climate anxiety. While people are having their homes and lives destroyed by climate change, climate anxiety can seem like a first-world problem. However, these mental health challenges have real-world impacts.
Every year evidence of intense climate crisis builds. This is a growing source of long-term stress for the people in this survey, and the sensation of helplessness makes it even more intense. With each passing flood or fire, young people are seeing their futures literally destroyed. While climate anxiety is higher for people in the more intensely affected areas, no one is immune.
Though climate anxiety is not an “official” diagnosis, the increased stress can definitely prime people for other mental illnesses or make existing ones even worse. There is a generational impact, too. This study demonstrates that young people as a whole feel the older generations and leaders have failed them. In turn, they are reacting as a generation. Almost 40% of respondents said they are reluctant to have children because of the climate crisis. That is a massive number. If it accurately reflects how young people the world over feel, it is detrimental to the survival of our species.
Fighting back climate anxiety
One of the most damaging parts of this whole experience is that young people feel powerless to do anything to fight it. For people so frustrated with government inaction, the suggestion to “just vote” seems too little, too late. A good way to fight this is to take direct action. Volunteering or working for an organization focused on the climate can put a little bit of power back in individuals’ hands.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that the climate crisis isn’t the fault of younger people. If you feel badly about climate change, don’t be to hard on yourself. Though ours and future generations will have to deal with this, no single person should believe they can personally do much to solve climate change. That’s too much of a load for anyone to carry. Managing the climate crisis will be a world-wide effort involving billions of people.
Despite these reassurances, anxiety about the future of our world can be crushing. Many people are also experiencing grief for the crisis, as you would the loss of a loved one. Therapists are catching on, and many are beginning to offer climate anxiety-focused therapy. There’s likely one in your area. You can also explore your symptoms in our symptom checker.