By Hasini Gunasiri
Climate change is a major global public health concern. Climate change impacts range from changing weather patterns to extreme climatic changes such as rising sea levels, heatwaves, new infectious diseases, and droughts. These impacts of climate change are consequences of the global temperature rise of 1°C above pre-industrial levels. According to the 2018 IPCC Special Report, harmful human health effects of climate change will develop when the average global temperature rise reaches 1.5°C. Hence, we need to understand the impacts of climate change and prepare for exceptional changes to limit a public health emergency.
Planetary Health: human-nature relationships
Human health depends on the health of the planet we live on. Planetary Health refers to “the health of human civilization and the natural systems on which they depend”. In other words, changes to climate, ecosystems, water, and land create problems and challenges to all living beings on the planet, with risks to human health. This human-nature relationship helps us to understand climate change and the impact it has on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. While climate change negatively impacts young people’s mental health, engaging in climate change action may affect young people’s mental health differently.
What is the link between climate change and young people’s mental health?
Climate change can impact a person’s mental health directly or indirectly. The severity and prevalence of mental health issues like depression, acute traumatic stress, and anxiety disorders can be affected by direct impacts of climate change events (e.g. extreme weather events). Indirect impacts include eco-anxiety, uncertainty, numbness, despair, and other intense emotions related to observations of climate change effects and anxiety about the magnitude of risks to people.
Young people and people from low socio-economic backgrounds are among the most vulnerable populations for these intense psychological impacts of climate change. Young people may feel differently about climate change compared to older generations because they have to grow up with an uncertain future in the context of growing existential threats. Young people may see this riskier uncertain future as something they are not responsible for creating. They may also feel hopeless, powerless, and worried because their voices are not heard.
However, young people’s passion for their environment and future have made them powerful supporters for change. They act as inspiring, innovative, and active leaders for climate change towards a sustainable future.
What about climate change action?
There is no specific solution for the above-mentioned climate anxieties. However, the best antidote known for climate anxiety is climate action. Young people’s engagement in climate action can help them in various ways. It allows them to manage their anxieties about climate change and develop feelings like optimism and determination. Furthermore, climate action can secure young people’s hopes. Hope is generated when young people start re-evaluating climate change or a given situation to make it appear in a more positive way or trust in their abilities to make a difference towards a better future. Hope can inspire young people to engage in climate action. When young people believe that they can make a significant difference in society and prevent climate change, it reinforces their self-efficacy and resilient collective efficacy.
We, as a society need to be more aware of the impacts of climate change on young people’s mental health and take action to promote their mental health and wellbeing. We can start by listening to their concerns and understanding them.
About the author : Hasini Gunasiri, is an international student from Sri Lanka following a PhD on Climate Change, Mental Health, and Young People at Deakin University, Australia. She completed her Master of Health and Human Services Management Degree at Deakin University in 2020. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology Degree from Iowa State University, United States and an Associates of Arts Degree from American College of Higher Education, Sri Lanka. Her goal is to conduct research to make new findings about the links between climate change and mental health, develop awareness and improve Health among the public. She believes the only true happiness one can get is from helping someone and seeing their smile. Her country helped her become the person she is today by providing her with care and support. Now she believes that it is her turn to help her small country and the world by helping people improve their health and thereby making their lives prosperous.