Oregon youths demand action on climate change to help address their mental health concerns

Climate change is causing negative mental health effects on Oregon’s youths, according to a new Oregon Health Authority (OHA) report.

 

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OHA’s Julie Sifuentes was the lead author of the report, which studied the effects of climate change on youth mental health. She discussed its findings during a presentation on Tuesday.

OHA’s Environmental Health Assessment Unit prepared the report in response to Gov. Kate Brown’s Executive Order 20-04, which directed state agencies to take actions to reduce and regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The executive order was issued on March 10th, 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic caused a delay in OHA’s response, Sifuentes said. Preliminary work began at the end of 2020.

OHA partnered with the University of Oregon’s Suicide Prevention Lab to work on the report, Sifuentes said. The lab conducted 5 focus groups with youths from across the state, and interviewed 8 experts in public health education and mental health. 

“We wanted to hear from youth at the highest risk of experiencing negative mental and emotional health effects of climate change,” Sifuentes said. 

Sifuentes said the findings include 3 key ways in which climate change can adversely affect mental health, including: 

  • Experiencing an increasing number of extreme weather events and climate-related disasters like wildfires and extreme heat events 
  • Chronic climate stressors, including water and food insecurity that can be precipitated by droughts
  • Increased awareness of the negative effects of climate change that can lead to anxiety

Sifuentes also referenced a 2021 study that surveyed 10,000 youths in 10 countries. Its results found that 59% of the youths surveyed reported feeling very or extremely worried about climate change, and 84% were at least moderately worried. 

OHA Senior Health Advisor Meg Cary said OHA’s research for its study showed that Oregon youths have concerns that are similar to what youths across the globe have voiced. 

“They have fear and worry about the effects of climate change in their lives and the lives of their younger siblings,” Cary said. “They feel the frustration of powerlessness. That there is a big threat that they can do little to change. They feel angry that people in power haven’t been acting with urgency, and have not been doing enough to protect their futures and the health of our planet. They feel the heavy burden and injustices that much will be left to them to try and turn things around and manage the impacts.”

The report indicated a need to invest in robust mental health services in schools and communities that are accessible, relevant, and welcoming to all youths, Cary said. 

“We hope this study will fuel the sharing of ideas and more action in Oregon,” Cary said. 

The presentation featured speeches from youths who have experienced negative mental health effects from climate change. Mecca Donovan is a statewide peer trainer at Youth Era. She said climate harms have directly affected her and her peers in a number of ways. She described her experiences during last year’s wildfires.

“My summer was cut short from outdoor activities and this took a toll on my mental health,” Donovan said. “As an adventurous person it was unfortunate not to be able to go on hikes, spend time by the river, and do the things in nature that help me practice self care. It was also hard not being able to take my dog out on long walks due to the ash-polluted air quality. And my dog developed some health issues during the time of the fires.”

Donovan said she and her peers want to see more accountability and acknowledgement regarding the effects climate change has on youths.

“We want to see more youth mental health support in schools and communities,” Donovan said. “We want to see youth invited to the table on decision making. Overall we want to see more genuine discussion and actual action for change. This can look like government and policymakers getting rid of fossil fuels and quickly changing to clean energy in cars, trucks, homes, and buildings. This can look like electrifying everything.”