A new report from the American Psychological Association found that climate change can play a significant role in affecting young people’s mental health.
The report, written in collaboration with the climate advocacy organization ecoAmerica, documents how environmental events linked to climate change—such as the extreme heat and poor air quality that’s experienced in areas of Southern Nevada—can trigger or exacerbate mental health issues in adolescents.
The report is a follow-up to a 2021 study conducted by the two organizations, who have been collaborating to release these studies for the past decade. Instead of conducting experiments, these studies summarize existing research about climate change, youth development, and mental health.
Natural disasters can lead to post-traumatic stress disorders in young people, the report states, and more long-term climate issues such as heat, drought, and poor air quality can lead to increased risks of anxiety, depression, aggression, bipolar disorder, and even cognitive impairment. And because children might not have the same coping strategies that adults do, they tend to be even more vulnerable to these consequences.
The mental health-related consequences of climate change could make the state’s existing youth mental health crisis even worse.
About 34,000 Nevada youth (15%) were reported to have experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2020, and approximately 28,000 youth (13.2%) experienced severe major depression within the prior year, according to MHA. The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) also found that 17.8% of Clark County public high school students seriously considered suicide and 8.5% actually attempted to kill themselves.
Many of these young people never get treatment or help. About 61% of Nevada youth with major depressive episodes have not received the mental health treatment they need, according to MHA. This is due in part to a dire shortage of mental health professionals—there is only one mental health professional for every 460 residents in the state, and every Nevada county is federally designated as having a mental health provider shortage.
As extreme weather events tied to climate change increase in frequency and intensity, those numbers could get worse.
The consequences of those events for parents could also trickle down to their kids. If a child’s parent is dealing with hardships associated with severe weather events, such as financial issues due to damage from a storm or fire, this can affect the child’s mental health negatively as well.
“If your parent is under stress because of worries or these fears, that can affect a child and their mental health,” Dr. Sue Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster and the report’s lead author, told CNN. “Experiencing trauma at an early age can have lifelong impacts on emotional health and well-being.”
If a child is exposed to weather disasters, air pollution, high temperatures, or even maternal anxiety while in utero, it can also lead to certain mental health consequences such as ADHD, developmental delays, low self-control, and psychiatric disorders, in addition to anxiety and depression.
The study found that for infants and young children specifically, climate change-related weather events and exposure to news reports about them, can again lead to anxiety, sleep troubles, PTSD, disrupted cognitive development, and major depressive disorder.
Finally, adolescents can also be indirectly affected by certain extreme weather events; heat and air pollution can lead to class cancellations, physical home damage, and food insecurity. In Sept. 2022, for example, Northern Nevada schools had to cancel classes due to air quality concerns.
The report also found that young people in particular are very concerned about climate change as it makes them feel like they can’t plan for their futures. They’re also more likely than adults to be alarmed about the perceived failure of governments or authority figures to act on climate change. Again, this frustration and uncertainty can lead to anxiety, depression, strained social relationships, and even suicide. On top of those emotions, extreme weather events and climate anxiety can affect decision making, cognition levels, and self control.
“How do you plan for the future when you don’t know what the future will look like?” Clayton said. “They’re making the decisions that will affect the rest of their lives, in terms of their career goals and plans. Are they going to save money? What about their decisions about having children?”
Like most societal issues, climate change-related weather events more intensely affect those with less money. People who live in wealthier areas tend to have more tree cover from heat, according to the report.
The report does offer suggestions for how to ensure that young people are less affected by the climate crisis.
The organizations suggest that schools play a greater role by teaching about climate change and designing more protective facilities. In 2020, New Jersey mandated that climate change be part of its school curriculum, from kindergarten forward. According to the Earth Island Journal, a publication that supports environmental activists and other leaders working to protect the environment, states such as Nevada and California can benefit from similar legislation as they’re more vulnerable to drought.
The report also suggests that health care professionals start screening early and regularly for climate-related distress among youth.
“This affects all of us,” Clayton said. “Children are effectively the future of society. We wanted to make the information about the problem and potential ways of addressing it available to groups that want to get access to it.”
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