Anxiety about the fate of the planet is harming the mental health of young people. Can we help them funnel their frustration into a force for change?

Climate change activist holding a banner with the message "The world is dying and so are we"

Climate change activist holding a banner with the message, “The world is dying and so are we,” 24 September 2021. Credit: Ivan Radic, CC BY 2.0.

 This article, by high school student Kendal Andress, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Kendal is a student at the Tatnall School, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.

When Laura Schmidt was a student she felt overwhelmed by the state of the world, particularly the climate crisis.

“In the classroom setting, we bring up a lot of the problems without many solutions without a lot of care for our emotional state,” she said. “The two are not compatible.”

Schmidt is the founder of the Good Grief Network, a nonprofit organization in the city of Lansing in the U.S. state of Michigan, that helps people work through their anxiety about climate change.

“The Good Grief Network started because I was a youth overwhelmed with the state of the world and now I have created global, international meeting sessions where we are able to connect on those levels,” Schmidt said.

Can eco-stress lead to societal change?

Today youth with similar personal experiences facing climate change experience an overall detriment to their mental health. But this eco-distress may actually be helping our planet by raising awareness for climate activism and spurring people worldwide to treat the earth better.

Bill Schluter teaches at The Tatnall School, a small private school in the U.S. state of Delaware, where he heads an advanced, college preparatory program.

As a teenager back in 1968, he faced the changing climate head-on when acid rain pelted his family’s vacation home in the Adirondack Mountains in New York state. A lake “teeming with trout back in the 1950s and the early 1960s, pretty much disappeared,” Schluter said.

The family telephoned the Department of Environmental Studies at Cornell University and, following the university’s suggestions, limed the lake each year for the next three decades to try and heal the effects of climate change on their treasured site.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since recorded 351 lakes having a pH level unlivable for aquatic life just in the Adirondacks. The problem now seems overwhelming. Moreover, a report in 2021 by UNICEF estimated that 1 billion children’s lives will be at “extremely high risk” due to climate change.

The toll on lakes, rivers, the ocean and our air seems so enormous that many young people feel paralyzed. Unlike Schulter’s family, they don’t see solutions to the problems.

Climate anxiety has been documented.

A 2021 survey by the University of Bath of 10,000 people aged 15-25 found that 75% agreed that the future is frightening and 83% said they believe that people have failed to take care of the planet.

Schluter understands the anger young people feel. “I think our generation has totally avoided our responsibility,” Schluter said. “If I was 13, 14, 15 years old right now, I would be pretty pissed off too.”

Schmidt, of the Good Grief Network, said these emotions are often referred to as climate anxiety but the term doesn’t reflect the complexity of concerns.

“Terms like eco-anxiety and climate anxiety give us a shared thing to point at but I think its limiting,” Schmidt said. “We are seeing a lot of youth exhibit anger and the word that we are moving to is eco-distress because it encapsulates the anger, the fear, the hopelessness, the despair. It gives more room to emotional reactions.”

Annette Khosravi is in her fourth year at Tatnall and is a member of 350 DE, a planet-wide organization that fights for a fossil fuel-free future. Khosravi wants to be an environmental activist.

“I am worried about [the state of the planet] but I also have hope for the future,” Khosravi said.”I think people don’t really care about the next generations because they won’t be there, therefore it’s not their problem. The best thing I do is research and educate myself on how I can be better to the planet.”

Older folks also fear for the planet.

But Schmidt said that eco-distress seems to cross generations.

“We definitely know that young folks are paying attention, and feeling betrayed by their governments and communities,” Schmidt said. “The lack of response to the magnitude of the issue keeps us millennials and gen-Zers awake at night.”

Schluter agrees. “Unless something changes dramatically by 2100, human existence will be unsustainable,” Schluter said. “My grandkids are going to be around and that weighs on me.”

Evan Cantu-Hertzler, a science teacher at The Tatnall School said that one way to cope with eco-distress is to focus on achievements as well as problems.

“It is important not to get stuck on [the negatives] but also see the positives we have made,” Cantu-Hertzler said. “Last year we made significantly more investments as a world in renewable technology because it just made sense economically and healthwise which I think is cool, and it’s a first. It’s the first time that the world as a whole has done something like that and it’s something to look forward to.”

Cantu-Hertzler said he tries to get people excited about the environment. “It is a slow process but impactful,” he said. “I do think people can be positively and negatively impacted and as far as teaching goes, I aim to be that positive.”

These coping mechanisms all play a role in how people approach their part in making positive contributions to the planet. So what if anything can we do about our planet deteriorating so quickly under our feet?

Schmidt from the Good Grief Network said that power comes from voice and persistence. “Young folks aren’t going away,” Schmidt said. “Young folks are demanding a seat at the table, and we are trying to find ways to incorporate the voices of younger folks because it matters.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. How does climate change affect mental health?
  2. What is one way someone can cope with the anxiety that comes from worrying about the planet?
  3. In what ways are the concerns of older generations different than those of younger people when it comes to climate anxiety?
Kendal Andress

Kendal Andress is in her fourth year at The Tatnall School. Her favorite subject is Science. She plays field hockey and lacrosse and is a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. She plans on attending the University of Pittsburgh to study Biology.

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