OHA: Climate change concern plays big role in youth mental health crisis

Young protesters at the Portland Youth Climate Strike earlier this year. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/Pike Portland)

young people are playing A major role in the Oregon climate movement, but the flip side of their remarkable passion and prowess for their activism is a looming mental health crisis.

a report A release last week from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) highlights this crisis. While her conclusion will not suffice for people involved in climate action, her insights provide legitimacy for an issue that has not received the attention it deserves.

The report, written by the OHA Department of Public Health, categorizes the various causes and effects of mental health issues caused by climate change. There are many experiences that young people have that will inform how they react to the crisis. People who have experienced climate-related disasters, such as the wildfires that devastated Oregon in September 2020, are likely to have a different mental health response than someone whose health has been affected over a long period of time by chronic climate stresses such as drought or poor air quality. The report also addresses “climate anxiety,” which the authors define as public fear and anxiety about the impact of climate change on the planet.

“I think this report has the potential to make people think more…just knowing that you’re not alone and that a lot of other young people feel the same and have similar feelings can feel really good.”

– Okiya Halloran-Steiner

Then there is the dynamic between young people and well-meaning adults.

“Adults may note in a well-meaning manner that they are inspired by the passion and determination of young people to call for action on climate change,” the report states. “However, young people may realize that as adults they relieve themselves of responsibility and put it on the shoulders of young people.”

Young people have never been able to live without fear of the climate crisis, feeling neglected by people in power who don’t act fast enough to help avoid the worst effects of global warming. They’re not wrong about feeling this way either. While strong adults have preached to young climate activists like Greta Thunberg when a prophet came to save the world, they are not actually acting on their pleas for policy change.

Young people in Portland who participated in youth movement Against the proposed I-5 expansion of the Oregon Department of Transportation, it has done much to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of transportation. But work has an emotional impact.

Ukiah Halloran-Steiner, one of the leaders of the youth movement against ODOT, told me she became passionate about climate activism after the Labor Day fires in 2020, which were both amazing and frightening. She said engaging in activism has allowed her to talk to like-minded people and get support.

“Just knowing that you’re not alone and that a lot of other young people feel the same and have the same feelings can feel really good,” Halloran Steiner said.

But she is skeptical that this report will do much to spur action.

Young climate activists outside ODOT District 1 headquarters in June 2021 (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“I think this report has the potential to make people think more. But the report alone doesn’t do anything, it just tells others what a lot of people already know,” she said.

In the foreword to the report, Governor Kate Brown wrote a powerful statement acknowledging the frustration some young people feel when trying to influence policy makers. But the governor has so far avoided the calls To take a stand against highway expansions Young climate activists want her to take a more aggressive stance.

At 25, I am older than most of the young adults surveyed in this study. But I am very attached to the feelings they expressed. I remember learning about global warming when I was probably eight or nine, and as someone who initially had an anxious streak, the threat of climate change seriously affected the way I saw the world. I found no comfort in talking to adults, whom I found either inappropriately dismissive or annoying. My most memorable wake-up call was in sixth grade, when my science teacher spent the entire year teaching us about the greenhouse effect and showing us presentations and documentaries about a dying Earth that sent me into panic and guilt. I suppose that feeling was a trigger for action for me, but it came at a price.

While there is only so much young people can do on their own to influence climate policy, the report contains suggestions for things people can do to keep themselves mentally well while dealing with such a serious problem. Among other suggestions, the report echoes Halloran-Steiner’s positive experience with joining the activist community, saying that many young people have reported that finding other people to work with on climate action has been hugely beneficial.

One young man said, “If I need to talk to someone, I can go to the people, and we can all feel the anger together and figure out what to do.” “Meeting people like you gives me hope.”

Read the report here (PDF).