Fires, heat waves cause ‘climate anxiety’ in youth
Oregon health officials say the impacts of climate change, including more devastating wildfires, heatwaves, drought and poor air quality, are fueling “climate fear” among young people.
Their findings have been published in a report that highlights young people’s feelings of fear, anger and frustration at perceived inaction by adults and government.
In a briefing on Tuesday hosted by the Oregon Health Authority, three young people spoke about how climate change has impacted their mental health.
High school student Mira Saturen expressed the fear she felt when the September 2020 Almeda fire swept through the area near her hometown of Ashland in southwestern Oregon. The fire destroyed more than 2,500 homes.
“It was a terrible and stressful couple of days as the details about the fire started to trickle in,” the 16-year-old said. Her fear was heightened by the fact that her father is a firefighter. “He was putting out the fire for over 36 hours, which was super scary for me.”
In March 2020, Gov. Kate Brown commissioned OHA to study the effects of climate change on the mental health of young people. In its report, the agency says its research is “designed to center the voices of youth, especially Oregon tribal youth and youth of color.”
The report underlines that marginalized communities are more likely to experience adverse health effects from climate change, noting that “emerging research shows similar disproportionate burdens in terms of mental health.”
Te Maia Wiki, another high school student in Ashland, spoke about this.
“For me, it’s important to mention that I’m native,” she said. The 16-year-old’s mother is Yurok, a Northern California native along the Pacific coast and Klamath River.
“In my mother’s generation, growing up, she went to traditional ceremonies and smoked salmon that was traditionally fished by our people on our river, which we have been fishing for since time immemorial,” Wiki said. “In my life, eating that fish and seeing that smoked salmon in our ceremonies is rare. This is a complete spiritual, emotional and physical embodiment of how stressed I am and how it affects me.”
OHA partnered with the University of Oregon’s Suicide Prevention Lab to review literature, conduct focus groups with youth, and interview professionals from the public health, mental health and education sectors. The interviews were conducted shortly after the extreme heat wave that ravaged parts of Oregon in the summer of 2021.
While focusing on Oregon, the report underscores broader mental health concerns for youth in the United States, amid a growing number of depression and suicide across the country.
Climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated an already alarming mental health crisis among young people. The number of high school students reporting lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40% between 2009 and 2019, according to a General Surgeon Advice issued Dec. Citing national surveys, the same advisory noted that the suicide rate among young people aged 10-24 rose by 57% between 2007 and 2018.
Despite the crisis, the survey participants also expressed a sense of resilience.
“One of the biggest, bittersweet takeaways from our focus group is that we’re not alone in this,” Mecca Donovan, 23, said during Tuesday’s briefing. She said that for young people with “all these busy thoughts,” having more opportunities to talk can help with mental health.
Lead author Julie Early Sifuentes, of OHA’s Climate and Health Program, said she hopes the study “generates conversations in families, in schools, in communities and informs decisions in policy making.”
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