Every child is raised with the knowledge that they will inherit their parents’ world, and that it is the duty of each generation to leave the world a better place for the next. While many generations grew up in the midst of a great crisis, none have been as catastrophic, permanent, and preventable as global climate change. During the 2023 Mental Health America Conference, Christina Johnson, MA, a therapist and mental health educator from the Bahamas, presented a session titled “Fear of No Future: Youth Mental Health Implications of the Climate Crisis.” 

Despite years and years of robust scientific research, warnings, evidence, and worsening disasters, a large portion of influential adults remain as dismissive or even hostile of the climate crisis as ever. Without any financial or political motivations to deny science’s warnings of the consequences of inaction, young people, especially children, are left feeling powerless and betrayed by the older generations that abandoned them to their fate on a dying planet. That creates powerful feelings of anxiety about the future and depression from grieving their powerlessness and their planet.  “The climate emergency that we are currently in takes, has taken, and will continue to take a substantial toll on our mental health,” Johnson said. “We know this.”

Unpacking the complex ways that the climate crisis influences our mental health offers clarity about the reality of its impact. “There are three main ways that our mental health is impacted by the climate crisis: direct, indirect, and overarching,” Johnson explained. The direct impact comes from extreme weather events or natural disasters related to global warming, such as wildfires, severe storms, floods, and droughts, which cause acute trauma in addition to the physical damage of the catastrophes. In fact, the psychological impact of these extreme events, meaning the number of people needing treatment for psychological harm, outweighs the physical impact 40:1. The indirect impact refers to human behavior, such as the increase in gender-based violence and violent suicides that accompanies heatwaves across the world. The overarching impact encompasses the long-term emotional distress related to climate change.

This final type of emotional distress, the overarching impact, can be examined in terms of pre-traumatic stress, post-traumatic stress, and pervasive traumatic stress. Pre-traumatic stress comes from anticipating recurring weather events, such as hurricane, tornado, or wildfire seasons. Post-traumatic stress follows the triggering event. “Pervasive traumatic stress, also known as complex PTSD, is when events are compounded, repetitive, or when little positive change seems to be being made,” Johnson said.

“This is where I’m most concerned for our youth.” Human physiology suffers increasing negative consequences when forced to live under stress for prolonged periods of time, ranging from immune system weakness to worsened sleep and all manner of related negative health outcomes. “Let’s not forget that their physical immaturity enhances the impact of consistent stress. Stress itself makes the body vulnerable. So these are not just emotional considerations. They’re physiological as well. … Our young’uns are struggling, y’all. I don’t even know how else to say it.”

In addition to stress directly related to climate change and the accompanying natural disasters, social impacts, such as closed schools, evacuations, and worse living and working conditions that surround severe weather events also contribute to worsened overall mental health. Increasingly, climate change interrupts the “normal” and interjects prolonged periods of supposedly temporary inferior conditions. As the “normal” is interrupted more and more often, doubts and fears about the stability of the future grow. “Being able to live the life that they want, the life that they have seen lived out for generations before them, they don’t know if that’s going to exist for them in the same way—or even at all, having kids, having careers, having a long life with a partner,” Johnson said.

As children are increasingly confronted with concrete examples of the consequences of climate change, the older generations whom they would usually look to for guidance and help are the very people with the power to take the action necessary to preserve the planet, and the homes of the people within it—but they are also the people refusing to act. What else could a child or young adult feel but betrayed and powerless that the people responsible for safeguarding their futures instead ensured that the planet they will inherit, the only home we have, is suffering catastrophic change? A survey of 10,000 young people revealed that the primary emotions elicited by climate change were sadness and fear, followed closely by anxiety, anger, and powerlessness.

“I will quote directly from the study. ‘Distress about climate change is associated with young people perceiving that they have no future, that humanity is doomed, that governments are failing to respond adequately, and with feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults.’ Sad, right? We are failing these children. We are failing them,” Johnson said. “In youth, we look to adults and our elders for safety, for security, right? But when it comes to the climate emergency, children and young people reported they’ve been dismissed or ignored by other people when they try to even talk about climate change.”

Although many adults’ first instinct is to reassure children, Johnson advised being wary of dismissing their concerns, as downplaying the severity of the situation is part of the denial that has contributed both to the climate crisis and poor mental health that have come out of this situation. “A lot of the time it’s very invalidating to have somebody placate you, even if they are leading with the best of intentions,” Johnson said. Instead, resisting the urge to give their concerns a concrete answer and offering to commiserate with them can present more meaningful healing options. “No matter the circumstance, validation is always such a powerful clinical tool, especially with youth.”

Above all, avoiding expressing apathy and hopelessness is the most important thing to avoid conveying to youth that climate change isa  hopeless situation or a doomed future, and there are meaningful steps that can still be taken to intervene and give our planet a chance at a brighter future.

To learn more about how to take action against climate change, look to movements like Count Us In and encourage others to do the same. Change for the better is always possible so long as there are people working to make it happen.