With catastrophic weather events quickly becoming the norm each year in Canada and around the world, young people are increasingly concerned about their futures. But experts say resources to support her mental health are unlikely to be able to keep up with the demand.
Speaking to Breaking: in Victoria against a cloud of bushfire smoke in the background, 16-year-old Hannah Fessler expressed concern for people her age left behind to deal with problems created by previous generations. Her own feelings about the wildfires in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and around the world are mixed.
“I’m scared, obviously, but I’m also a little relieved that I’m not a victim. But I’m a little ashamed to just focus on myself,” Fessler said.
So far this year, there have been more than 5,800 fires in Canada, burning more than 15.3 million hectares, according to the Canadian Interagency Wildland Fire Center, making it the worst fire season ever experienced in Canada. In addition to prompting thousands of evacuations, smoke from this season’s fires has also prompted air quality advisories across the country.
Fear and uncertainty about the future is something that Adriana Silva, 18, also experiences in the midst of climate change, a fact that the adults around her don’t always recognize, she says.
“Some family members don’t really believe in climate change, they say it’s not real, it’s a hoax and all that,” Silva said. “I believe in it. It’s quite real. We see it firsthand every day.”
Similar accounts of teenagers like Fessler and Silva increase research studies illustrating how climate change is affecting the mental health of young people.
According to a 2021 study published in The Lancet, 84 percent of 10,000 respondents aged 16 to 25 were at least moderately concerned about climate change. More than 45 percent said their feelings about climate change were negatively affecting their daily lives and functioning.
As weather events threaten to change entire landscapes In the coming decades, experts worry that mental health resources will not meet people’s needs.
Climate change is “a mental health problem”
There are a variety of feelings associated with climate change that don’t necessarily equate to climate anxiety, according to Dr. Lindsay McCunn, chair of the environmental psychology section of the Canadian Psychological Association and professor of psychology at the University of Vancouver Island. .
“There’s a term called ‘ecological concern’ that’s a little bit different than climate anxiety. And I think a lot of people, whether they realize it or not, probably have some ecological concern built into their psychology,” McCunn said.
Ecological concern occurs when people are aware of climate change and may be concerned about it, but are able to respond in productive ways, such as preparing for an emergency or participating in climate action events. Weather anxiety, on the other hand, is when this worry turns into despair that can be paralyzing.
The consensus within the Canadian Psychological Association is that the prevalence of weather anxiety will worsen in the coming years, according to a spokesperson for the organization, and there are not enough mental health professionals available to meet this growing need.
“[There is] there is an ongoing need to work on mental health, because climate change is certainly a mental health issue as well,” McCunn said.
Kids Help Phone, a phone and text messaging service designed to help young people talk about their mental health issues and provide them with resources, experienced a significant increase in demand during the COVID-19 restrictions. But call volume hasn’t slowed since then, said Diana Martin, the organization’s senior director of counseling.
“We’re getting up to 800 or 900 phone calls in a day, on a busy day, which is probably about double what we used to get before the pandemic,” Martin said.
It’s hard to gauge whether call volume increases in times of natural disasters, he said, but Martin speculates that a 30 percent increase in contacts with Kids Help Phone in June could have been driven by climate change induced incidents.
Someone to talk to
Kids Help Phone has several ways to make mental health services accessible to young people.
When young people call or text the organization, they typically start by expressing their feelings, without pinpointing a specific cause, Martin said. Through conversations, trained counselors or volunteers will determine your needs and direct you to the appropriate resources.
The ability to text or live chat with someone through their website is particularly popular.
“For many young people, using written modalities is comfortable, or sometimes it’s just about privacy,” Martin said. “[With] a phone call, sometimes young people fear being overheard. So communicating via text or live chat feels more private.”
The team has a database of thousands of counselors across Canada who can provide ongoing support, either free of charge or at a variable fee. But in some cases, such as in small rural communities, professional help is often not available.
“That’s when we could work with them around some of those informal supports,” Martin said. “Maybe it’s not a professional counselor, but maybe it’s a family member, a family friend, a neighbor, a coach, or a teacher.”
Finding people to talk to about their ecological and climate concerns is one of the solutions teens like Fessler and Silva have already sought.
Spending time in nature is another.
“For me, dealing with my anxiety about nature is spending more time in nature, and it’s sad that the space you spend time in may be in danger,” said Linh Nguyen, 19, who moved to Canada. with her. family five years ago.
Nguyen’s conversations with her peers, she said, veer toward climate change when someone points out how bad the temperatures have been recently, or discusses worsening her health problems caused by changing weather conditions.
For McCunn, there is a pressing need for more research on weather anxiety, not just among young people, but across all demographic groups, he said.
“The environment is everywhere, right? It’s a part of everyone’s life, no matter who you are, no matter where you work, no matter what your circumstances are,” McCunn said.
“We’ve probably all felt attached to the places we live, work and play. Having that threatened in a way that could be very devastating, like a wildfire, offers a particular kind of stress.”