Climate change anxiety is manifesting in teen mental health. They know our planet is in serious trouble. Let’s help them spot some solutions.

The Earth has a sad face painted on it.

Global warming and climate change rally (Elmar Gubisch)

If you are around teenagers and you’ve got more than a decade on them, they don’t seem to have much to say to you.

It might seem as if they are doing nothing but texting or playing games on their phones, but they hear and see more than you think, and they’re thinking about what’s happening around them. More than you know. 

At News Decoder each year, we ask students in our partner schools to pitch us ideas for news stories. Most want to report on big things happening across the world: police brutality, sex trafficking, transphobia, abortion. They get news off of social media about what’s happening around the world. And they pay attention. 

Then we suggest they look closer to home and ask them if they can identify problems in their schools, neighborhoods or cities. It doesn’t take them long: pollution in a nearby river, an overcrowded animal shelter, discrimination against disabled people they know. They pay attention to conversations around them and to what people say to each other on social media. 

In the story pitches students submitted to us this past year, they identified again and again two particular problems that worried them — climate change and mental health. 

These two problems are connected.

Kids cry out for climate change action.

Some of the problems we see in teen mental health are related to the gloom and doom scenarios they hear nonstop about the climate crisis and the inability of the adults in the room to save the planet. The climate crisis isn’t causing mental health, but it is definitely adding to the anxiety teens feel. 

In 2021, a team of researchers from universities in Great Britain, Finland and the U.S. surveyed 10,000 people in 10 countries ages 16-25. They found that almost 60% were very or extremely worried about climate change. More than 50% felt “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty.” More than 45% said these concerns negatively affected their daily life and functioning.

Many felt betrayed by those in charge. 

More and more, teens are turning their frustration into action. In Canada, 15-year-old Sophia Mathur is one of a group of youth activists suing the government of Ontario for violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by not protecting fundamental human rights in ignoring deadlines to cut carbon emissions.

In September 2022, 23-year-old Gabriel Klaasen of South Africa helped lead a youth march on parliament in Cape Town. Among the demands: a commitment to take electricity production off fossil fuels by 2035. In March 2022, youth staged a one-day school strike in 750 cities around the world. 

Let’s focus on solutions and problem solvers.

At News Decoder, we encourage young people to write stories about problems around them. Now we want them to focus on solutions.

This year, we teamed up with the Climate Academy at the European School Brussels II and the nonprofit Global Youth & News Media to launch a global storytelling contest, as part of a larger climate change project called The Writing’s on the Wall. For the competition, we ask teens to find people in their local communities who are working to solve our climate crisis in some way — with projects that take us off fossil fuels, perhaps, or by pressuring governments or corporations to take meaningful systemic actions. 

Teens see the problems around them. That much is clear. But it is making them anxious and frustrated because all they see are adults doing nothing. So now we ask them this: Can you identify the problem solvers around you? Can we tell stories about climate change solutions?

For our New Year’s resolution we are going to try to change the narrative from one of despondency to one of inspiration and motivation. Help us spread the word about our storytelling competition. Encourage teens around you to find a climate change problem solver in your community.

If you are a climate change problem solver, find a teen to tell your story. You can find all the details you need here. 

Three questions to consider:

  1. How is climate change connected to teen mental health?
  2. In what ways are teens learning about problems in their community and around the world?
  3. Do you know of anyone in your community who is trying to save our planet in some meaningful way?

Marcy Burstiner is the educational news director for News Decoder. She is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and professor emeritus of journalism and mass communication at the California Polytechnic University, Humboldt in California. She is the author of the book Investigative Reporting: From premise to publication.

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Health and WellnessFor 2023 let’s agree. We need a new climate change narrative