Maybe it’s the wildfires, or the hurricanes, or the changes to the plants and animals that surround us, but our children are feeling the impact of the climate emergency. A new study of 10,000 young people aged 16-25 (1,000 from the U.S.) published in The Lancet is a wake-up call to adults: Our children do not trust us, nor their government, to secure them a future that is safe. While politicians debate, our kids obsess.
All of this reminds me of my own youth, marching with a million others in downtown New York in the 1980s to protest nuclear weapons. I recall feeling the same sense of dread and cynicism that those in power just didn’t understand the state of peril they were creating for my generation. Somehow, we survived. Governments signed treaties and we have managed to take baby steps towards peace, only to repeatedly fall backward.
Forty years later, the issue has changed but the feelings are the same or worse. Social media and a 24-hour news cycle, along with an issue that feels far more personal (the threat of nuclear winter was always a bit abstract, whereas a hurricane is not) mean that anxiety is flourishing. There is a perceived immediacy to this crisis.
Kids feel that their futures are not secure. The study, despite its methodological problems (only young people who spoke English or Portuguese were included, and only those who had access to the Internet), the study is still large enough to raise alarms.
Most telling, on every dimension of trust in authority figures, and confidence that those in power were taking this issue seriously, a majority of young people expressed serious doubts that those with the power to address the climate emergency were willing, or able, to do so. It is this sense of powerlessness that, I believe, is fuelling the mental health crisis we see around us.
Interestingly, for young people who were not worried about climate change, a lack of trust in government was still a factor related to worry. In other words, at this moment in time when young people are losing faith in public institutions (think about how many people don’t believe election results are valid), the result isn’t just revolutionary fervor to change the system, it is just as likely to be depression and anxiety. These emotions are even leading 40 percent of young people to dismiss the idea of ever having their own children.
Making all of this worse is that those who are the most vulnerable to climate change are those who are experiencing the greatest mental health challenges. It’s these young people who feel most acutely that their lives are beyond their control.
What do young people do to cope? The most common responses to climate change are dismissing the truth of what’s happening, ignoring the signs of danger, rationalizing the changes one sees, or simply denying the experiences of others (thinking, All those people whose homes have burned because of wildfires are just media exaggerations).
The study did not measure actual experiences of mental disorder so it is difficult to know if all this anxiety is resulting in a mental health crisis, or if young people are finding ways of coping, whatever those might be. Regardless, the sheer size of the study’s sample and the consistency of its findings suggest that we are at a crossroads. Our children’s mental health depends on us doing something to make the world safer. Maybe, just maybe, subsidies for electric cars and better social policies regarding pollution, will not only save our planet but also in the short term make it easier for young people to believe that those in power really do care about the future.