PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) – Oregon health officials say the impacts of climate change, including more devastating wildfires, heat waves, drought and poor air quality, are fueling “climate anxiety” among young people.
Their findings were published in a report that highlights young people’s feelings of distress, anger and frustration over adult perceptions and government inaction.
In a briefing on Tuesday presented by the Oregon Health Authority, three young people spoke about how climate change has affected their mental health.
High school student Mira Saturen expressed the terror she felt when the Almeda fire swept through the area near her hometown of Ashland, in southwest Oregon, in September 2020. The fire destroyed more than 2,500 homes.
“It was a terrible and stressful few days when details about the fire started to come out,” said the 16-year-old. His fears were heightened by the fact that his father worked for the fire department. “He was fighting the fire for over 36 hours, which was super scary for me.”
Governor Kate Brown in March 2020 directed the OHA to study the effects of climate change on the mental health of young people. In its report, the agency says its research was “designed to center on the voices of youth, especially tribal youth and youth of color in Oregon.”
The report highlights that marginalized communities are more likely to suffer adverse health effects from climate change and notes that “emerging research is showing similar disproportionate burdens in terms of mental health.”
Te Maia Wiki, another high school student in Ashland, touched on the subject.
“For me, it’s important to mention that I’m indigenous,” she said. The 16-year-old’s mother is Yurok, an indigenous people from Northern California along the Pacific coast and the Klamath River.
“In my mother’s generation, when she was growing up, she would go to traditional ceremonies and eat smoked salmon that was traditionally caught by our people in our river, which we’ve fished since time immemorial,” Wiki said. “In my life, eating that fish, seeing that smoked salmon at our ceremonies, is rare. This is a complete spiritual, emotional and physical incarnation of how stressed I am by this and how it affects me.”
The OHA partnered with the University of Oregon’s Suicide Prevention Laboratory to review the literature, conduct focus groups with youth, and interview professionals in the public health, mental health, and education sectors. The interviews were conducted in the wake of the extreme heat wave that hit parts of Oregon in the summer of 2021.
While focusing on Oregon, the report highlights broader concerns about the mental health of young people in the United States amid rising rates of depression and suicide across the country.
Climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have further exacerbated an already alarming youth mental health crisis. The number of high school students who reported lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40% from 2009 to 2019, according to a Surgeon General’s Advisory issued in December. Citing national surveys, the same release noted that suicide rates among 10- to 24-year-olds increased by 57% between 2007 and 2018.
Despite the crisis, study participants also expressed a sense of resilience.
“One of the biggest and bittersweet conclusions of our focus group is that we are not alone in this,” Mecca Donovan, 23, said during Tuesday’s briefing. She said that for young people with “all these crowded thoughts,” having more opportunities to talk can help with mental health.
Lead author Julie Early Sifuentes, of the OHA Climate and Health Program, said she hoped the study would “generate conversations in families, schools, communities and inform policy-making decisions.”
Claire Rush is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on top secret issues.