Oregon youth are feeling the effects of climate change on their mental health

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
June 15, 2022 10:27 a.m. Updated: June 23, 2022 11:39 a.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, June 15

Climate change is affecting the well-being and mental health of young people, according to a new study from the Oregon Health Authority.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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Climate change is affecting the well-being and mental health of young people, according to a new study from the Oregon Health Authority. Researchers conducted focus groups to understand how more extreme weather events and climate-related disasters are affecting 14 to 24-year-olds. Feelings of anger, grief and despair are just a few of the emotions young people are experiencing. Julie Sifuentes is the climate and mental health lead for OHA as well as the lead author of this new study. Meg Cary is a child adolescent psychiatrist and senior advisor for OHA. Ukiah Halloran-Steiner is a 17-year-old climate justice organizer with Sunrise Rural Oregon. They join us with details.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Climate change is having serious effects on the emotional well being and mental health of young people in Oregon. They are experiencing grief, despair, anxiety and anger. That’s according to a new study from the Oregon Health Authority. Researchers there conducted focus groups to understand how extreme weather events and climate-related disasters are affecting people ages fourteen to twenty-four. Julie Sifuentes is the lead author of this new study. She’s the climate and mental health lead for the Oregon Health Authority. Meg Cary is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and a senior advisor for the OHA, and Ukiah Halloran-Steiner is a 17 year old climate justice organizer with Sunrise Rural Oregon. She is about to graduate from Baker Early College. Welcome to all three of you.

Julie Sifuentes, Meg Cary, Ukiah Halloran-Steiner: Thank you.

Miller: Ukiah, first. Do you remember a time in your life when you were not aware of climate change?

Ukiah Halloran-Steiner: I definitely remember a time, probably most of my life, honestly. I didn’t really start thinking about the climate crisis and its impacts on me until 2020 when the wildfires rolled through Oregon and I had to breathe in that smoke and see… saw firsthand that climate change was real and it was impacting me already.

Miller: What was your experience of the Labor Day fires of 2020? I’m curious how that changed your understanding of your world and your future?

Halloran-Steiner: I think I had been aware of climate change. I had learned the basics about it, but I had never really thought that it would impact me in my lifetime, let alone as a teenager, as a young person. So when my family and I were in Southern Oregon, when the fires rolled in, and we didn’t know exactly what was going on and we were out of cell service and when we came back into cell service, all of our family members and friends were texting us and calling us and asking if we were okay. And by then we realized that there were fires all across the Pacific Northwest, which was really scary to not know exactly what was going on, to know that people were in danger, but not know exactly who was in danger and to know that this all was exacerbated by people and our actions,

Miller: How much does the reality of climate change affect your mental health or emotional well being on a day to day basis?

Halloran-Steiner: I think about the climate crisis every day. As a young person, as someone who’s graduating from high school, every every day I think about my future and what my plans are and where I’m going to go to college and what my career is going to be, and every time I have those decisions or have those thoughts or get excited about something that I could do as an adult, I’m also here with the reality of what is this world even going to look like when I’m twenty-five, when I’m thirty – and what… and it really impacts the decisions that I make for my future and how I interact with the world.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for one of those practical decisions or a question you have, or a fear about the future and how that impacts your current decision making?

Halloran-Steiner: I think basically everything I do, like what I’m thinking about studying in college and what career I’m going into, is impacted by the reality of the climate crisis. I probably would be studying something else in college, but at this point, I’m planning on studying politics and public policy so that I can make change so that future generations have a livable planet.

Miller: It’s really striking that the course of study you’re thinking about there is not environmental science, because it seems that the science is pretty clear right now. So, what you’re drawn to is politics, because it’s a question of applying the science to actual public policy. Is that a fair way to put it?

Halloran-Steiner: Exactly. The science is real. We know climate change is real, but we know that our leaders are not taking the action that needs to happen. And if I have to be that person, I’m going to do that, and I’m going to support people in making those changes.

Miller: Julie Sifuentes, what did you set out to find when you started this report?

Julie Sifuentes: Well, you know, I had a sense ‒ I’d heard some youth voices prior to doing this study ‒ had a sense that climate change was a really important issue for youth, and I’d been working on climate and health for about 10 years before starting the study. So I had kind of a cognitive intellectual understanding of some of the mental and emotional impacts of climate change, and so honestly, I wasn’t really sure exactly what I would find, but I was really, really struck, and I feel like I gained such an expanded kind of understanding of how youth are really experiencing the climate anxiety, you know, really different than me and a lot of my colleagues. Like Ukiah said, the youth his age have their whole future ahead of them and are very future oriented. So having an understanding for those youth who have an understanding of what the climate science is, and then start having some of these direct experiences with smoke and wildfire and drought, you can really see how that can weigh really heavily on their minds.

Miller: One of the young people that was in a focus group had a quote that really stands out. It’s this, talking about older people: ‘They’ve already lived their futures, if that makes sense, but I still don’t know what mine is going to look like because of this existential threat. And so it’s like yelling at the wall about this really scary thing, but not really hearing anything back.’ Julie Sifuentes, what did you hear about that last part, the yelling and not hearing anything back?

Sifuentes: Yes. I think that was a really important finding, I guess, at this study because we heard it in that quote, which really impacted me a lot as well. It also was a really important finding from a really large study that was done in 2021 that was done with ten thousand youth across the globe, and what they found was it wasn’t only the climate disasters, the climate stressors in crisis that was causing emotional and mental distress for youth. It was is the inaction or the insufficient action of government leaders across the world, that was was really sort of, I guess amplifying and creating a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness and anger.

Miller: How aware were you of this generational tension when you put the focus groups together? Because I can imagine a dynamic that could seem like some version of adults basically asking the question, ‘How are you doing in this world that we have set fire to?’

Sifuentes: Yes. You know, I really, I think I did not appreciate the weight that climate change, the heaviness, I think, that youth were feeling around climate change and around inaction. Also,  something that we heard from many youth was really this experience of feeling dismissed, and feeling dismissed, many youth maybe dismissed by adults in their family or in their community and then also feeling, you know, very dismissed by our leaders.


[Voices overlap]

Miller: Can I ask, Ukiah, does that ring true to you? Do you feel listened to ‒  more, listened to or more dismissed?

Halloran-Steiner: I think overall I feel more dismissed by adults, especially adults in power. I actually have a friend whose therapist told her to not be so negative about the climate crisis, and I think that that is really symbolic of the generational difference of seeing those futures ahead of us versus somebody else projecting on us how they think we should feel.

Miller: Meg Cary, can you give us a broad sense of the various ways that climate change is manifesting in the emotional lives or the mental health of young people that you see?

Meg Cary: Thanks for that question. And I really appreciate your acknowledgement that distress shows up in really unique ways, and while there are some universalities and some similarities ‒ anger, frustration, feeling dismissed, feeling powerless ‒ that there are also individually-driven and culturally-driven ways that this shows up. So it can be the full breadth of our emotional experience. Some people feel angry and frustrated all the time. Some people feel hopeless and have a hard time connecting, thinking about the things that do make them hopeful or or bring them joy. Some people can feel depressed. Some people can feel anxious, and I think one of the really important things to know in particular around the emotions around climate change is these are appropriate and justified responses to this catastrophe that we’re facing. And so we want to be careful about saying that these are somehow inappropriate or an exaggeration. You know, I really appreciate Ukiah’s comment about her friend’s therapist too, who was pretty dismissive even about somebody’s reasonable emotional response to this.

Miller: Well, do you treat, then… do you respond to climate-focused anxiety differently from other kinds of anxieties? For example, you just said that a lot of these responses are appropriate and justified, given the reality that we face. I imagine you might not say that about certain body dysmorphias or various kinds of anxieties that, from a clinical perspective, you may not see as completely tied to outside reality. How do you reckon with that as a therapist?

Cary: Exactly. You know, I think fortunately, one framework to think about anxiety is an imbalance, or an in-harmony between our sense of risk, our sense of safety on the one hand, and our supports, or our resources to handle that risk. So like you mentioned, you know, classic anxiety disorders or anxiety conditions that really impair our lives are due to, often times, an overestimation of one’s risk or one’s lack of safety, be it flying in an airplane, or risk of talking in front of your class or of how people are judging you. And so oftentimes, in those circumstances, we talk a lot about reevaluating our risk, our safety, as well as how we relate to our worries about our risk or safety.

And then, on the flip side, those kinds of anxieties are often out of balance because not only do we overestimate our risk, but we also underestimate either our internal capacities or the supports and resources around us to handle those risks. You know, if I’m worried about speaking in front of my class, who is that friend, who’s going to be there in the back row that I can look at who will calm my nerves. For climate anxiety, the risk is real, like you said. This is not an overestimation of the risk. So I think that, for those of us in the behavioral health field, as well as those of us who are in community, as adults who love the kids in our community and our own kids, it’s our job to not gaslight the real risk and to acknowledge that that anxiety, again, is understandable given the circumstances. And then to really look at and collaborate together about how do we increase our resources and our capacity to handle both the climate change that’s already here, and the uncertainty about what’s to come. And so whether that’s helping folks prepare for more volatile weather, more natural disasters, more social unrest, more political pressures, or showing up by acting, what are things that we’re doing as adults, to the last thing, of course, which is ensuring that youth have a seat at the decision-making tables and that they are involved in the policies that will be impacting their lives and their younger siblings’ lives and the generations to come, both around emotional well-being, mental health services, as well as around climate change and climate action.

Miller: Meg Cary, it seems that the true solution to climate anxiety is not anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants, it’s collective global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions really dramatically, really quickly. But the scale of that solution … it seems impossibly large in the context of a therapist’s office. How do you deal with the true scale of the problem, and then and what you and the people you’re trying to help actually have control over?

Cary: Yes, I totally agree with you. And I so appreciate you emphasizing that, because you’re right, this is not something that we want to … a feeling that we say should not be there, and this is an example of the both / and. I think that having a space where we can share our deepest worries, our deepest fears, where we can sit with somebody and be in the company of somebody who can hold those really intense feelings, really overwhelming and scary feelings, is reassuring. And it’s what’s gonna help us engage in our best thinking, collaborate with others and and stay in climate action and working to advocate, to address all those really big things.

So both, how do we as mental health fields or again, trusted adults, and supports outside of the formal behavioral health system acknowledge and sit with our young people while they’re holding these big feelings, and then also how do we as a field really invest in a public health approach to community, emotional health and well-being. And I think that we’re doing that in a lot of different ways. I mean certainly the COVID pandemic, which has forced so many of us to experience the uncertainty that the youth are feeling around climate change, that many of our community members have felt for a long time about the uncertainty of their future, it’s really galvanizing, I think, an awareness and appreciation that on community levels, we need to address root causes and we also need to build in practices that support our emotional well-being in our day-to-day, in our workplaces and in our communities.

Miller: Ukiah, we talked in the past about your climate activism. I’m curious if activism has helped you personally, if it has given you more of a sense of control in what, in many ways, is an out of control world?

Halloran-Steiner: I think what it’s given me is a community of people that I can both feel these really difficult emotions and fears with, and then also, yes, to some extent, take action. I think, to be honest, it’s really hard to feel like I’m making an impact because I’m just one seventeen year old in the world. In the grand scheme of things, my impacts don’t really have much strength and power to them. But I think that it gives me a sense of purpose and it’s educated me a lot, built community and I do think that I am building power and I have a community of people who, together, we are building power and our leaders are listening, just not acting quite as quickly as we’d like them to.

Miller: But another way to look at it is ‒ I’ve seen this idea floating around for a number of years now among adults ‒ the sense that young people like you will save us. That we have not ‒ and I say we meaning middle aged people ‒ we’ve messed everything up and we have not shown any ability to to change our ways, but you know what? You people, you’ll take care of this because you’re impressive, and focused and can do things that we can’t. I’m caricaturing a little bit, but  it’s not that different from the vibe you can see on Twitter and here and there. I’m curious how you feel about that narrative.

Halloran-Steiner:  I mean, thank you. That’s a compliment to see that young people do have power and that the older generations do believe in us, but also no, thank you. We need you. We need adults in this fight. The adults are the people in power and we don’t have time to just leave it to the next generation because climate change is killing people now. People are dying every year because of the climate crisis. And yet young people are not in office. Young people are not at the decision making table. So adults in power, any adults, adults with power cannot just say that youth will save us because we don’t have that power yet.

Miller: Julie Sifuentes, what lessons do you see in this report for people in power, be they lawmakers, or school administrators or anybody?

Sifuentes: Yeah, I know along the lines of what Ukiah is saying, or what I think we hear a lot of youth say, is that they want to be at the table. They wanna be able to contribute to these conversations and to decision making. So I think there’s a lot of room for growth and improvement for our state agencies and our elected leaders to be engaging and sharing power with youth as we’re making plans and decisions related to climate change.

Miller: Ukiah, we just have about a minute left. But I’ve been referring to you as a young person because I am in my mid-to-late forties and you’re seventeen, but age is always relative. Youth is relative. What goes through your mind when you see a baby or a toddler?

Halloran-Steiner: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot about my future because, yes, I am a young person and I have a lot of years left to live on this plane, a lot of decades actually. But I do think and I have started to think even more about even younger generations, people who are a lot younger than me. I have a three year old neighbor and I definitely center him in a lot of the activism that I do and I have hope for a better world for every generation, including my own, but especially the ones that are going to come in the next five years, ten years, fifteen years.

Miller: Ukiah Halloran-Steiner, Meg Cary and Julie Sifuentes, thanks very much.

Halloran-Steiner, Cary, Sifuentes: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Miller: Ukiah Halloran-Steiner, is graduating from Baker Early College. She is a climate justice organizer with Sunrise Rural Oregon. Meg Cary is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and a senior health adviser for the Oregon Health Authority. Julie Sifuentes is OHA’s climate change and youth mental health lead and lead author of OHA’s new Climate Change in Youth Mental Health study .

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