Categories: ColumnistsOpinion

Youth mental health and climate change are intrinsically connected

By Megan Tomlinson

Special to the Record

The extreme weather events of 2021 shone a spotlight of awareness on the relationship between climate change and mental health.

A deadly heat dome, disastrous wildfires, and devastating floods have many British Columbians expressing their heartache, exhaustion, and fatigue. And yet we are told to expect an increase in frequency and intensity of these catastrophic events. Amongst the most vulnerable to adverse mental health outcomes are youth. Young people are voicing their distress with the current reality and a fear for their future – are we listening?

The psychosocial development of children and youth is negatively impacted when the safety and predictability of their environment is threatened. The adolescent years are a crucial period for developing ideas about one’s relationship to the world. For the teenage brain, societal awareness broadens and ideas for the future become palpable. The youth of today are aware of their volatile destiny on account of the climate crisis. Two-thirds of youth from the global north and south endorse feeling extremely or very worried about climate change, and express feelings of fear, grief, and abandonment.

Mental health affects how we think, act and feel. It determines our ability to navigate our emotions and handle stress. Our mental well-being impacts how we relate to others and our capacity for making healthy choices. It is intrinsically linked to our physical health and societal health.

The mental well-being of Canadian youth is concerning. A pre-pandemic report card published by UNICEF ranked the mental well-being of Canadian youth and children at a dismal 31st place out of 38 high-income countries. For Indigenous youth, historical and existing indecencies under colonial rule have broken families, communities, governance, and tradition. Adding insult to injury, the environmental degradation of lands, waterways and ecosystems impact cultural practice, leaving Indigenous youth further impacted by loss.

Eco-anxiety is defined as a type of stress and a natural response to environmental demise. It can be an adaptive response, helping to propel people into action. Eco-anxiety can also induce demoralizing feelings of helplessness and frustration. Regrettably, youth report feeling disregarded or dismissed when they voice their concerns about climate change.

Adult community members can help build resilience in our youth. First and foremost, we must actively listen and validate the experience of eco-anxiety as a normal response to a frightening situation. We can link youth to supports such as the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre and the community organization, The Foundry.

As parents, grandparents and guardians, we can promote activities such as nature walks or simply play with our youth in the natural world. We can join our youth in community initiatives aimed at protecting our ecosystems, such as pulling invasive species and protecting natural habitats. We can stand beside our youth at climate rallies and advocate for their voice to be heard. We can make adjustments to our individual footprints by adopting a plant-centred diet, maximizing active transportation, and consciously working on waste reduction.

The direct and indirect impacts of climate change experienced in this province, such as loss of home and livelihood, or water and food insecurity, contribute to eco-anxiety. The mental health of children and youth is at risk in the face of an ominous future, one of climate collapse caused by the fossil fuel era. This is not the time to defend the past or be apathetic about the trajectory we are on. We must open our hearts and listen to the future generations – they are scared and crying out for adult allyship. This is the time to bear witness to the emotional pain, and respond to the climate challenge with clear commitment and resolve.

Megan Tomlinson (R.N.) is a member of the Comox Valley Nurses for Health & the Environment

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