PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon health officials say the impacts of climate change, including more devastating wildfires, heat waves, droughts and poor air quality, are fueling “climate anxiety” among Young.
Their findings were published in a report highlighting young people’s feelings of anguish, anger and frustration over the perceived inaction of adults and the government.
At a briefing Tuesday hosted by the Oregon Health Authority, three young people spoke about 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. The fire destroyed more than 2,500 homes.
“It was a terrible and stressful couple of days as details about the fire trickled out,” the 16-year-old said. Her fears were heightened by the fact that her father works for the fire department. “She was out fighting the fire for over 36 hours, which scared the hell out of me.”
In March 2020, Governor Kate Brown directed the OHA to study the effects of climate change on the mental health of young people. In her report, the agency says its investigation was “designed to center the voices of youth, especially tribal youth and youth of color in Oregon.”
The report underlines that marginalized communities are more likely to experience adverse health effects from climate change and notes that “emerging research shows similar disproportionate burdens in terms of mental health.”
Te Maia Wiki, another high school student at Ashland, addressed this.
“For me it is important to mention that I am indigenous,” he said. The 16-year-old’s mother is Yurok, an indigenous people of Northern California along the Pacific coast and the Klamath River.
“In my mother’s generation, when she was a child, she would go to traditional ceremonies and eat smoked salmon that our people traditionally caught in our river, which we have fished in since time immemorial,” Wiki said. “In my life, eating that fish, seeing that smoked salmon in our ceremonies, is rare. This is a complete spiritual, emotional and physical embodiment of how stressed I am by this and how it affects me.”
OHA partnered with the University of Oregon Suicide Prevention Laboratory to review the literature, conduct focus groups with youth, and interview professionals from the public health, mental health, and education sectors. 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 underscores broader concerns about the mental health of young people in the United States amid rising rates of depression and suicide across the country.
Climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have further exacerbated an already dire youth mental health crisis. The number of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40% between 2009 and 2019, according to a December Surgeon General advisory. Citing national surveys, the same notice noted that suicide rates among youth ages 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 takeaways from our focus group is that we are not in this alone,” Mecca Donovan, 23, said during Tuesday’s briefing. She said that for young people with “all these crowded thoughts,” having more opportunities to talk could help with mental health.
Lead author Julie Early Sifuentes of OHA’s Climate and Health Program said she hopes the study will “spark conversations in families, in schools, in communities, and inform decisions in policymaking.”
Claire Rush is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.