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A Conversation on Climate Anxiety and Its Impact on Youth Mental Health

In the wake of the pandemic, mental health has emerged as a crisis that can no longer be ignored.  At the same time, millions of Americans who are struggling also hold attitudes and beliefs that can prevent them from reaching out for help. The Ad Council's multi-year Mental Health Initiative, in partnership with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, addresses this growing concern through a series of ongoing mental health campaigns, for multiple audiences, to ultimately inspire people to be more open, accepting and proactive when it comes to mental health.

The current mental health crisis, driven by a combination of factors including the long-lasting effects of the pandemic, has been compounded by the consequences of climate change. According to a new report from the American Psychiatric Association, climate change heavily affects mental health, especially for the youth—leading to strained social relationships, depression and climate anxiety.

Climate anxiety, also referred to as eco-anxiety, is a heightened awareness of environmental issues and climate change concerns that may lead to burnout and negative mental health impacts.

Anya Kamenetz, author and former NPR education journalist, began experiencing her own burnout during the pandemic. Balancing reporting on education, raising two children, authoring her book, The Stolen Year, about kids and COVID, and dealing with climate anxiety led to a shift in her reporting—focusing now on climate change and its impact on youth mental health. In our conversation, Anya talked about her new focus and shared insights for marketing and communications professionals navigating this crucial topic.

Anastasia Goodstein: This summer was really an inflection point for many people being forced to acknowledge the impact of the climate crisis. For those of us working to shift behaviors through communications, what do you think are effective ways to talk about what’s happening without overwhelming people to the point of inaction?

Anya Kamenetz: There's a growing amount of research on just this question from places like the Yale Center on Climate Communication, FrameWorks and a new white paper just out from New Zero World and the Global Commons Alliance. So, there's a lot of great ideas and advice about moving beyond science and data alone, invoking shared values, local impacts and highlighting real progress and opportunities to make a difference.

However, I also believe that people who work in communications need to reckon with the industry's extensive past and current work for hire in obfuscating the reality of climate change, elevating industry voices and bought-and-paid-for experts in the name of "balance," casting aspersions on activists, and enabling corporate greenwashing. I recommend Amy Westervelt's podcast Rigged if you want more details.

The message that we are doomed is disinformation. It really plays into the hands of polluters who don't want any action. Placing the blame squarely where it belongs is a galvanizing strategy in my opinion. A recent study shows anger is the climate emotion most clearly tied to action.

AG: For those of us who are working to address the current mental health crisis in the United States, and its impact on youth, how can we bridge these two topics effectively?

AK: Climate anxiety is widespread among Gen Z—75% globally say the future is frightening. This study also showed this anxiety is largely because of what they're hearing in the media, as well as learning in school without full context. A survey I did with Aspen Institute last year showed fewer than half of parents have talked to their kids about climate change. I believe in breaking that silence, supporting our kids and taking their concerns seriously, while also talking to them about progress and taking positive action together.

AG: Due to systemic racism, many of the impacts of climate change are disproportionately affecting communities of color. Can you highlight some of the work being led by these communities that we should be amplifying?

AK: Yes. The Biden administration through the Justice40 initiative is directing federal environmental funds for the first time to environmental justice groups and frontline communities. This website is a great place to learn more. In New York City, I would name WE ACT. In addition, the Climate Mobilization (where, full disclosure, I'm a board member) supports front line BIPOC groups in different regions around the country in the work of climate survival. This is an essential combination that bridges mutual aid, disaster relief and preparedness, climate organizing, housing and other community-building work. I'm also consistently inspired by the organizing done by indigenous groups in the US and around the world. One name I want to lift up is NDN Collective.

AG: As a parent and someone who has covered education in depth, what can parents do to support children who may be overwhelmed or feel anxiety around climate change and what should our public schools be doing on this issue?

AK: We can support our kids, by first doing our own work with climate emotions to move from paralysis, to grief, to positive action, and sometimes back again—because this is not necessarily a linear process. I recommend The Good Grief Network which has programs and support groups specifically for parents, as well as free resources I've created with Climate Mental Health Network on talking to kids about climate emotions. As climate change comes into the curriculum in more states, teachers are also drawing on social-emotional resources to support students and I believe this is a crucial part of teaching about climate change.

AG: For people who are struggling with feelings of hopelessness about climate change, where can they look to find hopeful stories or ways to engage with others around this issue to make a difference?

AK: I publish a free newsletter every week, the Golden Hour, with resources in support of climate mental health and ways to get involved. My call to action for you is to share your concerns about climate change with at least one person, a friend or family member, to find community and build collective awareness.

Learn more about Anya Kamenetz and her efforts to address the relationship between climate change and youth mental health.

Photo by Roberto Nickson / Pexels


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