Poor mental health in youth is an ever increasing problem.
It is often flagged at by the media and various organisations, and whilst there are often brilliant resources that can be found, when it comes down to the cause of the increase in mental illness in Gen Z, parents and caregivers tend to put it (somewhat jokingly) down to our phones.
Sure, social media has had a huge impact on the self-esteem of today’s youth. However, back in the 80s, magazines were obsessed over by many teens, and staring at endless pages of skinny supermodels wasn’t great for body image either.
But today there is another cause for young people’s increased anxiety and depression (aside from the many other physical and mental factors) that has largely been undetected by health professionals and parents – climate change.
I am 16, and I can easily say that I have experienced anxiety attacks and bouts of depression owing to what I call ‘climate stress’. And I am not in a minority.
I spoke to some people I know between the ages of 14 and 16, and the responses were staggering.
Everyone was worried about the state the planet is in, ‘especially during natural disasters, because obviously it’s only going to get worse into the future and that ‘all of the beautiful, natural places in the world are being polluted and ruined, and animals are going extinct’ (Samara, 16).
But the extent of the damage that our climate emergency is having on the mental health of youth goes beyond the worry of what will happen to the planet. ‘In times where I have been anxious or suicidal, and am already feeling pretty hopeless, the fact that the Earth could have a pretty awful future just makes everything I’m working to get through seem pointless’ (Anonymous, 16).
Hearing directly from a young person that global warming is making them not see much point in working through severe mental illnesses, is terrifying to hear.
We are so close to irreversible damage to our planet that a lot of us youth have felt this way at some point. Our futures are also being dictated by this emergency. ‘I feel that my career path is very much shaped by the way our environment is rapidly declining. I almost feel obligated to go down a route that helps to improve the environment instead of something else I am really passionate about. As well, why would I want to raise a child in a world that could end very quickly?” (Anonymous, 16)
Who runs the world?
Many young people haven’t mentioned their fears because ‘It won’t make me feel better’ (Anonymous, 14). This could easily be put down to the fact that we are watching the majority of adults ‘not doing anything’, totally ignoring what the planet, scientists, and young people (often albeit internally), are screaming.
Another friend of mine raised a fair point on why she hasn’t mentioned how she feels to adults about climate change. ‘I’ve never really expressed how much it affects me mentally,’ she said, ‘because society always manages to make you feel like you’re in the wrong for worrying too much, as the “adults will sort it out”’ (Anonymous, 16).
To top it off, for Byron youth, the Australian government is the worst in the world with its lack of climate action policies, according to the Climate Change Performance Index’s (CCPI) 2020 report. Our government is making decisions that are actively worsening climate change, rather than trying to prevent and reverse it.
The problem is that all of the children and teenagers that want change, are unable to vote for leaders that will at least try to solve the problems, whilst a lot of ‘people continue to act like it isn’t an issue and governments keep shutting out our opinions.’ (Samara, 16).
We still can turn the tide against global warming, even as young people in a home where we cannot install solar panels. You can choose where your money goes; this sounds obvious, but by using a bank that only invests in renewable energy sources, or only shopping from companies that have traceable sustainability, you are having your say in what you want to happen to the climate.
The youth of Byron Shire seem to do particularly well. Around 6,000 students went to the Student Strike 4 Climate in Byron Bay last year, and 15 year old Nalani, in partnership with Resilient Byron, is researching the impact climate change has on youth mental health. She has submitted a draft proposal for getting youth more involved with movements regarding our future, and is distributing a survey to local schools to get opinions from young people about what projects could be done.
Whilst, yes, the way the planet is going, we may not have a hospitable place to live in a few decades here, and yes, this is absolutely impacting on the mental health of today’s youth, however, the world still has a window of opportunity in which to act.
It’s not too late, just yet.
♦ Adel Pheloung is a year ten student doing work experience at The Echo.