Young people hold signs during a climate strike in 2019. (Salem Reporter/FILE)
The issue of global climate change became achingly apparent to 17-year old Ukiah Halloran-Steiner of Yamhill County during the 2020 Labor Day weekend wildfires.
She was kayaking on the Rogue River in southern Oregon with her family when smoke and wind blew through.
“Bats were flying in the middle of the day and my eyes and throat were burning,” she said.
“We thought ‘Oh it’s fires in California, what else is new,’ which is obviously a sign of a bigger problem, but once we got cell service I was getting texts from friends saying they were evacuating people in our own county. It was frightening and sad and anxious making.”
Last November, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory highlighting the nation’s growing youth mental health crisis. The report identified climate change as a factor shaping the mental health of young people.
On Tuesday, the American Medical Association declared climate change a public health crisis that threatens the health and well-being of all people. And a new study from the Oregon Health Authority published Tuesday found many Oregon youth are experiencing growing climate anxiety or “eco-anxiety.”
As part of her 2020 executive order on climate change, Gov. Kate Brown directed the Oregon Health Authority to study the mental health impacts of climate change on young people in the state.
The Health Authority teamed up with the University of Oregon Suicide Prevention Lab, several nonprofit climate advocacy and youth organizations and the Klamath Tribes to talk with young people from around the state.
The researchers convened focus groups of youth from the Klamath Tribes, those with disabilities and multicultural and multiracial groups. They did independent interviews with experts working in mental health, education, and public health. They also worked with an Ashland-based nonprofit called The Hearth to hold story-sharing circles with middle and high schoolers impacted by the 2020 wildfires.
What they heard were feelings of hopelessness and despair as a result of slow government action to address climate change, and anger and frustration at the chasm between their sense of urgency and that of adults and leaders. Oregon youth felt they had the most to lose and the least power to effect change.
“A theme that emerged in the focus groups and our engagement with youth was a sense of burden that older generations have placed on youth to ‘fix’ the climate problem,” the report said. “From younger people’s perspective, this is frustrating because their lives will be affected more than adults, action needs to happen now to meaningfully reduce those effects, and they do not currently have the political and economic power adults have to address the problem.”
The researchers found that as Oregon youth increased their awareness of climate change, they experienced greater climate anxiety or eco-anxiety. They found that Oregon youth understand climate change as closely linked with systemic racism and oppression and wanted to see both addressed in unison.
Youth from the Klamath Tribes reported anxiousness over climate change’s impacts on their hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. Said one, “Climate change is affecting our rights to our traditions. I think that that’s one of the things that could be affecting our mental health and our physical health.”
Among Latina, Latino and Latinx youth interviewed in the Rogue Valley, the 2021 heat wave and the death of a farmer brought the issue of climate change to the fore. One person interviewed said, “I think about the man who died, the farmworker. It took someone to legitimately die in our fields for OSHA to make new rules about heat and smoke. It’s just so heartbreaking and so frustrating.”
The researchers and youth people landed on several actions that could be taken to curb mental health distress over the state of climate change.
One was for adults to take youth concerns seriously.
“I don’t like the mental health industry very much because we don’t acknowledge the world and the absurdity of the world often enough. We focus on individuals and their problems,” one mental health professional told researchers. “With the way we talk about mental health … it’s all about their depression, their anxiety, the things that are wrong with them, and how they don’t interface with the world well enough. Climate change is such a specific example of why that is an absolutely a [sic] useless model, the world is the problem, the world will not look the same, it will not exist the same way.”
The researchers and youth found that creating a sense of community around the issue and proposing change that can happen at the community, not just individual level, is helpful. Another action everyone could take is to create stronger relationships with the natural world, especially important among indigenous cultures with histories and traditions surrounding now threatened fish and plant species.
The report recommended increased youth mental health services in schools and getting young people involved in decisions around climate change response and mitigation. They also recommended government leaders create systems of accountability to youth around addressing climate change.
For Robin Sack, a 16-year-old from Portland, getting involved in climate change activism helped curb her sense of hopelessness about the future.
Sack said the 2020 Labor Day fires were a turning point for her climate change awareness. She watched Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thurnberg’s Ted Talk, then got on Google to search for climate activism organizations nearby.
“I found Sunrise PDX,” she said of the local chapter of the international movement to stop climate change. “That alone was like, ok, there are people fighting this all together.”
She began going to meetings via Zoom during the pandemic.
“I was sort of scared at first, but after I started meeting people and seeing more teenagers in the space, I gained more hope and a big sense of community. There are people worried about the same issues as you,” she said.
An international survey of 10,000 young people across 10 countries found nearly 60% of those youth reported feeling very or extremely worried about climate change. Nearly 85% were at least moderately worried.
“While it may feel like you are alone,” Sack said, “You are not. There are millions of people in your city, in your state, your country and across the world who are wanting the same thing as you and who will join you in that fight.”
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