How ‘Climate Anxiety’ Affects Students — and What We Can Do About It
Clad in a beanie, university sweatshirt and gold-rimmed glasses, a TikToker who goes by Mimi looks directly into the camera and speaks in a gentle tone as she addresses her viewers on the topics that flash in red-highlighted letters at the top of the video: “TW: Climate Anxiety & Doomism.”
The trigger warning is buttressed by a more hopeful message accentuated in green: “& TIPS on how to deal with that.”
Considering what the 24-year-old shares in the video about her experience as a climate activist and former environmental studies student in college, the need for a heads-up becomes apparent.
“As you come to the realization of how big an issue climate change is and how small it makes you feel, it really brings around this impending sense of doom,” she says. “It makes you feel super helpless, especially when you start acknowledging who gets affected.”
That is to say, people who are part of certain racial groups — likely a reference to the outsized impact climate change has on Black and Hispanic people — and low-income people. And that reality has made Mimi contemplate, “Wow, do people really think of my life as that worthless when it comes to making a buck?”
“I ended up in undergrad having to go to therapy partially because of my acceptance of what climate change is and how little and small and in-equipped it made me feel,” she says. “And ironically my therapist said, ‘I get a lot of you environmental studies majors in here,’ and she was very happy that I came to see her.”
There are plenty of factors affecting students’ mental health these days. Continuing reverberations from pandemic-era remote learning, gun violence and social media to name a few.
There appears to be yet another to add to the list.
There are signs that soaring temperatures, monster storms and aggressive floods are taking a mental toll on students. An international “climate anxiety” survey of 10,000 teens and young adults found that more than 45 percent of those who responded said “their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.”
Climate anxiety isn’t a wholly new concept. Google saw a 565 percent increase in searches for the phrase a couple years ago.
Since then, researchers have taken closer looks at what role climate anxiety — also called climate doomism or eco-anxiety — plays in the overall mental health pressures that young people are facing.
Mimi is far from alone in her experiences with climate anxiety, if the myriad videos by other TikTokers on the platform talking about dealing with negative effects of the environment are any sign.
A study from the Yale School of Public Health found that climate anxiety is distinct from other mental health conditions like general anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder.
“Responses demonstrated how climate change anxiety can pose a barrier to engaging with goals typically salient in emerging adulthood such as education, career, and family-related goals, which may contribute to a loss of meaning or purpose,” researchers explain in the paper. “This may be of particular concern in the context of an emerging adult population that is already more vulnerable to mental health distress.
Yale researcher and clinical psychologist Sarah Lowe said in an Q&A earlier this year that climate anxiety tends to impact people who are already experiencing symptoms of general anxiety. Overall, Lowe explained, the number of college students who say they’re experiencing climate anxiety is fairly low.
“Our students were in the range of ‘rarely anxious’ to ‘sometimes anxious,’ and that to us was a bit surprising given what we’ve heard from students,” she said in the interview. “But it’s also important to note that the whole range of scale scores was represented in the survey results, so we did have some students who reported frequent or extreme anxiety about climate change.”
One potential source of relief for climate anxiety among youth might be doing something about climate change.
That can come in many forms. A Pew Research Center poll from 2021 found that adults in Generation Z were more likely than Americans belonging to older generations to have donated money, contacted an elected official, volunteered or attended a rally to try to help address climate change in the prior year.
The Yale survey of more than 300 undergrad and graduate students ages 18 to 35 found that students who participate in “collective action” — like involvement in advocacy groups or educating others about climate change — report lower levels of climate anxiety than those who only take part in individual actions like recycling or saving energy.
One notable recent example of youth taking collective action occurred last month, when 16 plaintiffs, ranging in age from 5 to 22, successfully won their court case claiming that state agencies in Montana were violating their constitutional right to a clean environment by allowing fossil fuel development. NPR called it “a first-of-its- kind trial in the U.S.” and one that “established a government duty to protect citizens from climate change.”
For her part, TikToker Mimi encourages her followers to remember that the answer to climate change does not rest on any one person. Rather, people who want to get involved can think about how their unique talents and skills can be put to use.
“How can I make the most ripples and the most effective change in the communities I reside within?” Mimi invites them to contemplate. “And no, it may not be this huge movement or this huge thing that I’m doing, but I am contributing. And I’m holding those who are part of the problem to the utmost accountability. Do what you can with what you can.”
Designing for Climate Education
Just because children and teens are taking action doesn’t mean they think grown-ups should be absolved of responsibility. The climate anxiety international survey found that “a perceived failure by governments to respond to the climate crisis is associated with increased distress” among youth.
Getting governments to change is a big task (although not impossible, as those young Montanans learned.) So what can adults whose work is closer to the daily experiences of children do to? For example, as educators and architects grapple with the challenge of adapting school buildings to design with climate resilience in mind, can they affect students’ climate change worries as well?
That answer is yes, according to one expert.
Shivani Langer, a senior project architect and senior regenerative design adviser at the firm Perkins&Will Austin, echoes other experts who say children are more vulnerable to climate change than adults. She previously spoke to EdSurge about how architects are making school buildings more resilient to rising temperatures and other effects of climate change.
That vulnerability includes their physical development and characteristics — young children literally inhale more air pollution because they breathe faster — to the interruptions to their education from more frequent natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes.
Langer is also an expert on how buildings can impact their inhabitants’ health and well-being — having earned the rather aptly named credential of WELL accredited professional — and believes that architects can educate students and even assuage worries about climate change through their designs.
“Kids are seeing that things are happening, right? Whether it was a freeze here, or a hurricane somewhere, or a tornado somewhere,” she says. “Kids are the biggest proponent of sustainability. They understand that they will go through it because of our bad decisions over the years.”
Langer says colleagues at her company’s Atlanta firm designed a school’s rainwater collection system that is used to teach students about sustainability and gardening. Additionally, sustainability-minded architects encourage schools to include in their designs dashboard displays that show students how much energy or water is used in the building. The dashboard could be a screen near the entrance visible to students and visitors alike, she explains, or the usage data could be accessed via iPad as part of science lessons.
“We have even done competitions between different wings of schools to say, ‘Hey, how much electricity did you use?’ So in that way, they get excited about being better stewards of the environment,” Langer says. “And if we make these schools resilient and sustainable, informing and teaching through that actually helps relieve their stress, too, because they understand that there is something being done.”