Report: Fires and heatwaves cause ‘climate anxiety’ among young people
At a Tuesday briefing hosted by the Oregon Health Authority, three young people discussed 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 southwestern Oregon in September 2020. fire destroyed more than 2,500 homes.
“It was a terrible and stressful two days as details of the fire came to us,” the 16-year-old said. Her fears were heightened by the fact that her father worked for the fire department. “He fought the fire for over 36 hours, which scared me to death.”
In March 2020, Governor Kate Brown asked 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 the voices of young people, especially tribal youth and youth of color in Oregon.”
The report highlights that marginalized communities are more likely to experience the adverse health effects of climate change, and notes that “emerging research shows similar disproportionate mental health burdens.”
Te Maia Wiki, another Ashland high school student, talked about it.
“For me, it’s important to mention that I’m aboriginal,” she says. 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 smoke salmon which was traditionally caught by our people on our river where we have been fishing since time immemorial,” Wiki said. “In my lifetime, eating this fish, seeing this smoked salmon in our ceremonies, is rare. It’s a complete spiritual, emotional and physical embodiment of how I’m stressed by this and how it affects me.
The OHA partnered with the University of Oregon Suicide Prevention Lab to review the literature, conduct focus groups with youth, and interview professionals from public health, mental health, and education. The interviews were conducted shortly after 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 nationwide.
Climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have further exacerbated an already alarming mental health crisis among young people. The number of high school students reporting lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40% from 2009 to 2019, according to a Surgeon General advisory released in December. Citing national surveys, the same opinion notes that suicide rates among young people aged 10 to 24 increased by 57% between 2007 and 2018.
Despite the crisis, study participants also expressed a sense of resilience.
“One of the most important and bittersweet points from our focus group is that we are not alone in this,” Mecca Donovan, 23, said during Tuesday’s briefing. She said for young people with “all those cluttered thoughts”, having more opportunities to talk could help with mental health.
Lead author Julie Early Sifuentes, of the OHA’s Climate and Health Program, said she hopes the study will “generate conversations in families, in schools, in communities, and inform decisions in policy-making”.
Claire Rush is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.