Across North America, climate change is disrupting a generation's mental health

December 2nd 2020
Some days climate change anxiety is just too much to endure for University of Guelph student MacKenzie Harris. “I dip… in and out of periods of depression, just feeling like this is huge, this is way too big.” Photo provided by MacKenzie Harris

The anxiety that routinely bears down on MacKenzie Harris is rooted in a powerful and increasingly common fear plaguing this generation of young people: climate distress.

“Anxiety for me is when I’m sitting doing my schoolwork and feeling like it is useless because I might not have a future to work towards," says the University of Guelph graduate student who also heads up a group called Climate Justice Guelph.

“Your heart races. Your vision can blur. Your throat gets caught. And you get very flushed and you just can’t focus on what you’re doing because it doesn’t feel productive.”

Anxiety for me is when I’m sitting doing my schoolwork and feeling like it is useless because I might not have a future to work towards.

Climate change-induced angst among youth is helping fuel growing youth mental health instability across North America, according to a cross-border investigation involving more than 70 journalists, academics and students at 10 universities and three media outlets across Canada and the U.S., including Canada’s National Observer, the Toronto Star and NBC News.

Nearly half — 49 per cent — of the 152 post-secondary students in Canada and the U.S. interviewed for the investigation listed “existential angst” over climate change, job prospects and future economic stability as one of their mental health stressors.

A bad day for Harris means pulling out of organizing meetings, tuning out of her course work and scrolling aimlessly on her phone.

“With the pandemic now, not being able to go outside… the phone is the thing you turn to.”

Halfway across the country, University of British Columbia (UBC) student Em Mittertreiner experiences similar angst when thinking about climate change.

“I feel guilty when I’m cleaning my room because I think there’s something else I could be doing right now. I have a lot of trouble sleeping because I’ll be lying in bed, and I’ll be like 'I could be doing work right now. I could be productive right now,'” says the 20-year-old UBC psychology student.

“I feel that I constantly have to be organizing things and reaching out to people and do protests and organize (campaigns). And it’s really hard to calm myself down and say, ‘OK, you’re also in school,’” says UBC psychology student Em Mittertreiner. Photo by Rachel Cheang

The investigation’s findings reflect an increasing concern about climate change, says Beth Mark, a staff psychiatrist at the Student Counselling and Psychological Services Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who reviewed the responses of the investigation’s 152 interviewees, which included Mittertreiner.

“This threat (activates) our nervous system,” says Mark, who is also on the steering committee for the U.S.-based Climate Psychiatry Alliance. “(Climate change) makes people feel a kind of pre-traumatic stress because we know something is coming. And it makes us feel bad, this existential threat. So learning how to cultivate resilience and to keep our sanity and to keep moving is really important.”

Joanna Henderson, a senior scientist at the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, agrees that climate change is an emerging stressor for young people.

“They receive many messages about how we are destroying the planet and it’s already too late. It’s a lot of doomsday inputs that create a dichotomy that says, ‘I’m supposed to be working really, really hard right now, but for what?’”

Researchers have coined terms like eco-anxiety to describe the "chronic fear of environmental doom," which climate change inflicts on increasing numbers of people.

“It's this feeling of anxiety, depression, powerlessness, that people feel when it comes to issues that are so overwhelming, with respect to ecological disasters,” says Pamela Schwartzberg, president and CEO of Learning for a Sustainable Future, a non-profit organization working to integrate climate change and sustainability learning into Canadian education systems.

With political divides deepening, violent clashes between protestors and police and a looming climate catastrophe, young people feel they are staring down a future that feels more grim, chaotic and treacherous, say educators.

“You just have to talk to them and they'll tell you about their concerns about the sustainability of the planet,” says Santa Ono, president of UBC, which has taken a number of recent initiatives to get a handle on some of the ways climate change is affecting students.

“It used to be that people would go to university with the hope that they would get a job and the odds were good that their lives would be better than their parents. That's certainly not what people believe today. Students don't have hope for their futures.”

President of the University of British Columbia, Santa Ono, worries that students “don't have hope for their futures.” CP file photo

That despair has also been reflected in recent surveys and reports commissioned by UBC.

Fifty-three per cent of respondents to an interim report based on an online survey of more than 3,000 students, staff, faculty and alumni at UBC said they “worry about climate change at least once a day, and nearly a third said that they worry about it at least once a week."

Meghan Wise, a UBC master's student applying for her PhD, used the survey results to study how universities in Canada and abroad were dealing with the impacts of climate change stressors on students and faculty.

“These mental health impacts are ubiquitous. They are applicable across institutions and across provinces,” says Wise. “We’re experiencing anxiety and depression and PTSD and climate grief and loss.”

“Climate anxiety is a natural response to a climate trauma,” says UBC PhD candidate Meghan Wise. “It’s a rational fear. We want to let (students) know that it’s normal to feel these things.” Photo provided by Meghan Wise

Particular vulnerability to eco-anxiety has been observed in groups of people with lesser capability to manage or recover from its impacts, including those with lower socio-economic status, limited mobility and livelihoods that rely on the environment, such as agriculture or fishing.

That vulnerability is perhaps most clear in Canada's Arctic, where climate change has already had a profound impact on the environment and the people who live there. The region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, according to a 2019 Environment and Climate Change Canada report. The same report found the annual average temperature in northern Canada has increased by 2.3 C since 1948.

It's a grief without end. Every day it's changing and there's a sense of loss.

Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, dean of the School of Arctic & Subarctic Studies at Memorial University, has studied the impact of a changing climate on mental health Inuit communities in Labrador.

Visible signs of climate change in the North from month to month or year to year make the repercussions inescapable for the people who live there, she says.

"People ... talk about experiencing strong emotional reactions: sadness and anger and frustration," she says. "It's a grief without end. Every day it's changing and there's a sense of loss."

The changing climate means traditional methods of survival are under direct threat, says Cunsolo Willox. Things like getting food, hunting, practising culture and travel are getting harder and more dangerous.

"You have people who for thousands of years have been connected to a cold and ice environment ... and suddenly in one generation, you're looking at ice-free winters and what that does to people, the utter devastation it causes."

A 2019 study led by Ellen Field, assistant professor at Lakehead University, and in collaboration with Learning for a Sustainable Future, surveyed more than 3,000 Canadians about climate change and found two-thirds of student respondents felt climate change will greatly harm future generations and nearly half said it's already harming Canadians. Roughly one-third said they believe nothing could be done at all, accepting that climate change was inevitable.

“(Students) don't feel that we're going to be able to solve the problem, which is a great concern,” says Schwartzberg. “They don't have the confidence in humans to make the changes necessary to stop climate change.”

In the classroom, teachers are faced with finding a balance between despair and hope, she says.

“Teachers have to really have the skills to walk that fine line, to not scare the children but to create hopefulness and personal agency.”

Only 32 per cent of educators surveyed said they feel they have the knowledge and skills to teach about climate change, the 2019 report found. When given a test on the mechanics of climate change, nearly 44 per cent failed it.

But there is hope, says Janelee Kluttz, a PhD candidate in the faculty of education at the department of educational studies at UBC who recently completed her own study of strategies universities in Canada and around the globe are using to help students cope.

“Individual faculty members (are) realizing that it’s a problem and creating (workshops). There are a few new courses that are popping up at universities that look to be driven by faculty members who have decided 'we need an actual course on looking at the effect of the nature of the climate crisis.'”

Kluttz says students are also organizing groups to support each other.

“It is important to talk about mental health and climate change if we’re going to build resilient communities and resilient individuals,” says UBC PhD candidate Janelee Kluttz. “So, yes, I do see it as a bigger area of research.” Photo by Allison Painter

UBC student Mittertreiner knows all about the role advocacy groups can play in pushing universities to address climate change. The activism started in Grade 8 with a climate action group for kids that worked to expose the risks of pipeline projects.

“It was really, really inspiring.”

Through the years, Mittertreiner’s work intensified to include running workshops, advising UBC students on how to lobby politicians, where to attend city council meetings and how to have their voices heard.

For her part, MacKenzie Harris has intensified her climate-change activism, focusing on issues such as pushing universities to divest pension funds from oil and gas companies.

But burnout for these two student-activists and many others interviewed for this investigation remains a huge risk.

“There’s a really fine line between guilt and shame,” says Mittertreiner, who hopes to get a PhD in psychology and teach the subject to university students.

“Collective guilt around climate change is in a lot of ways a healthy thing, as long as the ways that people are trying to get rid of that guilt is in a productive way that is mitigating climate change.”

This series examining youth mental health is part of a cross-border investigation involving the Toronto Star, the Investigative Journalism Bureau (University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health), NBC News, Canada's National Observer and journalism faculty and students from the following universities: Stanford University, Temple University, University of Missouri, Syracuse University, City University of New York, University of British Columbia, Ryerson University, Carleton University and the University of King’s College. See the full list of contributors here.

View the whole series and full project credits on the Investigative Journalism Bureau's website.

You can find the Toronto Star’s Generation Distress project page here.

Listen to the 'This Matters' podcast here.

I've had the odd struggle with anxiety myself, and don't disparage any of this.

But as the son of a WW2 vet and grandson of two WW1 vets, I really think that our society has been through worse, and we pulled through. I would give our kids some credit on this.

The notion of mental ill-health due to climate should really embarrass climate *journalists*. They're telling a story that's making people feel hopeless, when it's not hopeless.

It's one thing when your leaders tell you that the solution is to pick up a rifle or to start manufacturing stuff, but when your leaders are constantly working with the enemy, hopelessness is a valid reaction.

That said, politics itself can and has changed, so I think it's too early to give up.

Here's what worries me.. According to a poll conducted last year by CBC News, "..while nearly two-thirds of Canadians see fighting climate change as a top priority, half of those surveyed would not shell out more than $100 per year in taxes to prevent climate change, the equivalent of less than $9 a month."

That worries me too, and is just another glaring example of how profoundly irrational people are increasingly showing themselves to be.
But even though the bottom line on important action is obviously "political will," most people still regularly espouse "bothsidesism," allowing for the right of everyone to "vote their conscience," even when the entire political right wing has openly acknowledged that they don't even accept climate change is "real!" (But there's a heaven, and some "god" who will look after us all.....)