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Seventeen-year-old Zoha Faisal has been worried about climate change for as long as she can remember. Her family immigrated to British Columbia from Pakistan, where her grandfather is the chief of a small village. “We've experienced a lot of floods that wipe out whole years’ worth of crops, and the village is pretty overpolluted as well. Just seeing the stress that that has put my family under, I think that was the main cause of my sense of urgency.”

It’s now well known that teens and young adults all over the world are experiencing distress as a result of climate change. In the widely reported The Lancet survey of 10,000 youth in 10 countries in 2021, more than 45 per cent of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning. And more recently, in February of this year, an American study of 39,000 high school students found those who experienced the highest number of days under a federal disaster declaration were 20 per cent more likely to report mental distress, even five years later.

Climate action is constantly, reflexively prescribed as an antidote for what’s narrowly referred to as climate anxiety. We talk about “turning anxiety into action,” as though our own and our children’s sleepless nights, pounding hearts and twisting guts were a raw form of energy that could be harnessed to smoothly power an electric juggernaut of moral fortitude and save us all.

It’s true that activism can be a valid, even vital, coping strategy. But what the young people I listen to are also saying is that when they rush into action out of their own desperation and climate movements are not structured for healing, they experience burnout and dejection from the very activism that they turned to for help managing their distress.

This is a personal concern for me. I have a near-teen who's growing in their climate consciousness, but I'm honestly not sure where to draw the line between empowering them with the invitation to act on their convictions and burdening them with what feels more like an obligation.

At the University of Toronto, Maria Vamvalis recently published a qualitative study of young people’s engagement with climate justice work.

“I don’t think I was fully prepared for the depth of despair that so many of them are holding, and the amount of energy it takes for them to feel thriving,” she told me. “They’re scared, they’re angry, they’re frustrated, they’re depressed, they’re sad — but they also feel empowered when they’re part of a movement. So, there’s a whole complex array of emotions.”

For the young people in her study, “being part of collective movements was critical to their well-being.” In fact, said Vamvalis, “Being part of the youth climate movement was the one thing that was helping them feel like there was some possibility in their lives.”

That’s a lot of pressure. At just 12 or 13, Faisal started organizing her peers.

Climate #activism can be a valid, even vital, #coping strategy. But young people also say when they rush into action and find #climate movements are not all structured for healing, they experience #burnout and dejection. #youth
Zoha Faisal (centre with megaphone) at a climate rally. Photo submitted by Zoha Faisal

“It felt really good to be a part of something. A part of the hopelessness about climate change is thinking you can’t do anything about it. It felt very healing for me.” But it could be exhausting, too. “It’s something most young people in activism go through,” she says. “You throw yourself into the cause without any kind of sustainability and you end up burning out and crashing down. I saw that happening to so many people around me.”

“I’ve seen 14 year olds not sleeping for days because they’re not just thinking about climate change, but working on campaigns,” agrees Abhay Singh Sachal, 22. He got his start as a climate advocate at the age of 14, joining an expedition to the Arctic. He now focuses on the intersection of climate and mental health. “Burnout is very characteristic of the youth climate space.”

Progress can be slow and frustrating. The community is small, especially in Canada, and can feel competitive at times, even though people are working toward a common goal. And of course, the stakes are, as Sachal says, “life and death.”

What might not be immediately apparent to those who are young and fresh to a movement, is that for generations, people working to build a better world have struggled with these feelings, and there are lessons to draw from their experience.

At 23, Zain Haq already feels like a movement veteran. His direct action work with Save Old Growth in British Columbia landed him in jail and immigration detention. Lately, he’s been turning to the writings of Gandhi. “What I really find inspiring about someone like Gandhi is he seems to have gone through life with a deep sense of humour. In pictures, you always see him laughing and playing with children.” By learning about nonviolence as a spiritual path, Haq has been able to detach somewhat from the outcomes of his activism and cultivate patience.

“When people are young, I think there’s a high likelihood of thinking we’re invincible and we have to get things done right now. But most of the time, we have to be willing to live our whole life dedicated to something.” He’s interested in being part of a climate movement that prizes “sociability,” people caring for each other, sharing meals and celebrating together.

Faisal came to a similar conclusion. After the pandemic, she hit a turning point in balancing climate action and mental health. Old tactics felt stale and “stuck,” she said, and produced diminishing returns. She proposed that instead of another strike or march, her group, Sustainabiliteens, throw a “climate block party.”

“We wanted it to be a celebration of community, people coming together and celebrating wins, free food, artists, music, things that would bring people together. I think that's what the climate movement has been missing for so long. At the end of the day, it’s a people’s movement.”

She got pushback. But she and her friends persisted and the event was a great success.

“This crisis is caused by systems of oppression and you can’t dismantle it using this grind mentality, like work and work and work,” Faisal says. “You have to centre love and hope and joy if you want to build a movement that has those ideas at its core.”

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
April 18, 2024, 01:42 am

This story has been updated to clarify some of Zoha Faisal's remarks.

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Heck, as an older senior I get burnt out just reading about or hearing the flim flam our youth and all population are subjected to. And as I am not a social media participant, I know it is much worse there. Just from what I hear! Every 2 months I take a break from all the bee sss and stick to fiction reading. Mind so much of social media and political posturing is fiction anyway