As hurricanes ravage coastlines across the country and wildfires raze huge swaths of the West, anxiety over the ever-increasing presence and intensity of climate change is on the rise. No group seems to be affected more by warming temperatures and ensuing natural disasters, though, than young people. As younger generations grapple with an uncertain future on Earth, stress, worry and even panic can ensue. Over the past several years, popular media outlets, scientific journals, and advocacy groups have begun to explore a phenomenon now known as “eco-anxiety.” Eco-anxiety is simply defined as anxiety or worry about the effects of climate change on our planet. But what happens when genuine worry turns into anxiety that inhibits day-to-day functioning? And how can parents help their kids and teens who are disproportionately impacted by the influence of climate change on their mental health?
While eco-anxiety is not the same as a clinical anxiety disorder, the most important aspect in observing the presence of climate change related stress is its intensity and frequency. In 2019, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family foundation poll found that 57% of teens surveyed reported feeling afraid of climate change. 52% said they felt angry. And a 2020 study by the American Psychiatric Association found that 67% of 18-23 year olds felt somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on their mental health. The study also found that this mental health burden is unduly placed on young people, with only 58% of 40-55 years olds expressing similar sentiments. Eco-anxiety and its accompanying emotions can also exacerbate other mental health issues such as depression, PTSD and substance abuse disorders. At the same time, being worried about looming and persistent natural disasters is logical as the effects of climate change have intensified in recent years. But according to Dr. Caroline Fenkel, Charlie Health’s Chief Clinical Officer, anxiety turns from a normal stress response into a clinical concern when it begins to hamper everyday life.
“When you start to see kids having regular panic attacks; avoiding social interactions; eating or sleeping more or less; withdrawing from people or activities they used to enjoy...that’s when you know something deeper might be going on,” she said. “And it’s never too soon to ask for help, whether you’re a young person struggling or a parent who needs more support. Watching events like Hurricane Ida or the Caldor wildfires is scary and unsettling. It’s totally normal to feel anxious about it, but when that stress becomes an everyday thing or it’s making an existing diagnosis worse, that’s when we encourage families to contact us.”
The frequency of eco-anxiety (or as other psychologists have coined it, “solastalgia,” which is the distress that is produced by the impact of environmental change on people’s homes) is as important to pay attention to as its depths. For example, “if your kid or teen isn’t doing homework or engaging in other school-related activities because ‘there’s just no point,’ it may be more helpful to ask them to talk out their feelings with you rather than dismiss them,” Dr. Fenkel said. “Kids and teens in 2021 are incredibly stressed out, especially living through a pandemic. Lumping climate change on top of it sometimes makes having the focus or motivation for things like homework becomes extremely difficult. Disengagement and existential dread are different things.”
Dr. Fenkel suggests patience and compassion when talking through kids and teens’ anxieties and encourages parents to help their kids move into a place of empowerment and proactivity. Here are some suggestions for how you can steer the young people in your life toward some climate-oriented solutions to anxiety:
- Express validation: “It makes sense that you feel worried or overwhelmed or afraid or angry...or all of the above!”
- Encourage involvement
- Millions of kids, teens, and young adults all over the world have organized climate change protests, marches, petitions and other forms of political activism in recent years. Help your family find an advocacy group that aligns with your values.
- Get educated as a family about ways individuals can reduce their carbon footprint.
- Be supportive of lifestyle changes and habits your kids or teens may choose to make to support greener practices. Brainstorm with them and be willing to adopt those same changes throughout your household.
And of course, reach out to Charlie Health if you or a loved one needs more support. We are here to tackle some of our country’s most pressing mental health crises by offering accessible and virtual high acuity care. Remember: we’re all in this together.
Charlie Health’s team of licensed clinicians is here to support teens, young adults, and families struggling with mental health to process and navigate challenges together. Reaching out for help is a critical step in your journey toward healing. Professionals are available to listen to your needs, answer your questions, and match you with a treatment program that fits your needs.