Record-breaking temperatures stretched across the United States this summer. Severe storms and catastrophic floods are causing mass devastation around the world. Signs of the changing climate have become impossible to ignore.
Teenagers are taking it all in.
Amid the general mental health crisis among youth, the specific issue of climate anxiety is surging. A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey found that 37 percent of teenagers feel anxious when they think about climate change and its effects, and more than a third feel afraid. Many also said they feel helpless and overwhelmed.
“I feel like generally there’s a lot of hopelessness among people my age,” said Croix Hill, a 16-year-old junior at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans. “When talking about it, people are just kind of like, ‘Well, whatever. We’re not even gonna have a planet in 50 years, so it doesn’t even matter.’”
The consequences of climate-related distress are profound for youth. The fear of climate change is influencing their decisions about where to attend college, whether to stay in their hometowns as adults, and even whether to have children. In some cases, these feelings can adversely affect young people’s ability to function on a daily basis, experts say.
What is ‘climate anxiety’?
The term climate anxiety encompasses all the difficult emotions—anxiety, fear, sadness, grief, anger, helplessness, powerlessness, and guilt—that people can experience when confronting the climate crisis, said Britt Wray, a human and planetary health postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who has written a book, Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in the Climate Crisis.
While climate anxiety is present in people of all ages, Wray said, it’s most prevalent among young adults. She’s seen climate anxiety in high schoolers, middle schoolers, and even children as young as 8.
Yet experts warn that school counselors or teachers aren’t prepared to help students emotionally grapple with the climate crisis—something that both social-emotional and climate advocates are hoping to change. Climate change education is spotty and limited across the country, and many teachers don’t receive training or support to teach the science fully and accurately—to say nothing of its social-emotional toll.
“This is an existential human crisis that I think teachers are not prepared to address,” said Chelsey Goddard, a vice president at the Education Development Center who leads the global nonprofit’s health, mental health, and behavioral health work in the United States. “Just to address climate change in the context of science [isn’t] addressing the social-emotional and social science aspect of this crisis.”
I feel like generally there’s a lot of hopelessness among people my age.
Climate anxiety isn’t a clinical mental disorder; rather, the growing consensus in the field is that it’s a natural response to a real and existential threat, Wray said.
The vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is driven by human activity and, if left unchecked, will lead to disastrous consequences, such as extreme heat and more severe storms that displace millions from their homes.
“[The anxiety] can be really hard to deal with because of the intensity of the climate crisis, and the fact that solutions for this crisis aren’t reconcilable by any individual,” Wray said. “There can be a bit of a trapping in the anxiety that occurs when a person feels like they aren’t in control and aren’t able to address the threat by finding the right solution for it.”
Teenagers say they feel anxious, afraid, and helpless
The EdWeek survey, conducted in October, presented teenagers a list of 11 emotions—ranging from angry to optimistic to uninterested—and asked them to select all that apply when they think about climate change and its effects. The top response? “Anxious,” followed closely by “afraid” and “helpless.”
Just 17 percent of the teenagers, who ranged in age from 14 to 18, said they felt optimistic. Only 8 percent said they were unconcerned.
Croix has lived in New Orleans since she was 2. The city is home, but the signs of climate change are everywhere—from remnants of debris from Hurricane Ida, which ravaged the city in 2021, to the wafting smell of controlled marsh fires, which are regularly set to boost the health of wetlands and reduce the sea level rise that’s contributing to the disappearance of Louisiana’s coastline.
She’s also painfully aware of the oft-cited threat that New Orleans could be underwater in the coming decades as sea levels rise. As Croix considers where to apply to colleges, she increasingly feels like New Orleans won’t be where she ends up.
“The increase in hurricanes and detrimental tropical storms that we’ve been experiencing definitely influences the decision that I’m making as far as college and my plans, because I don’t know if that’s something I want to have to deal with,” she said. “I love New Orleans, it’s my city, but I just don’t know if ... evacuating every single year, and it getting worse and worse, is something I can deal with.”
Croix isn’t alone in that calculus: A fifth of teenagers said the threat of climate change has impacted the location of where they’d prefer to attend college, and 37 percent said it’s affected where they want to live as an adult, according to the EdWeek survey.
“I feel like the more south you go, the hotter it gets,” said Ocean Bardwell-Jones, a 17-year-old senior at Waiakea High School in Hilo, Hawaii. “Given that I want to be a lawyer, I would not want to wear a suit all the time in a hot environment. That would be awful.”
Ocean and his classmate Alexander Tuson feel like they’re in a bubble in their corner of Hawaii, with its lush rainforests and waterfalls. But the threat of climate change still scares them.
“It feels kind of safe here, but we read all the articles about the giant floods in Pakistan—it’s intimidating,” said Alexander, who’s 18. And he’s noticed signs of environmental distress around him.
“There’s no coral anymore,” Alexander said. “There are some beaches close to here, and there used to be a lot of coral there, and it’s kind of a dull color right now. … I’ve never seen really bright-colored coral, and I think there used to be.” (Coral loses its color as a result of pollutants in the water or rising sea temperatures.)
Meanwhile, a quarter of teenagers said the threat of climate change has affected whether they want to have children, the EdWeek survey found.
“I don’t know anybody my age who’s like, ‘Yeah, I want to have kids,’” said Jia Sharma-Chaube, a 15-year-old junior, also at Benjamin Franklin in New Orleans. “I think the idea that it’s just a natural course—you’re going to get to grow up and get married and have a good job and get a house and have kids—that’s becoming less and less of a realistic option for people my age.”
She added: “I love kids, but like—I don’t know, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable with that, I guess.”
The EdWeek data bolsters what other researchers have found: A global study of 10,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 found that 39 percent say they’re hesitant to have their own children one day because of the climate crisis.
“When I talk to young people, … even though they’re not at all in a place to be thinking about who they might have kids with and all the rest of it, they’re so stressed out about their future that they don’t think it’s fair or responsible to imagine putting another person in that situation as it gets worse,” Wray said.
Educators can help students manage their climate anxiety
Students who are wrestling with climate anxiety need to feel heard and understood, experts say. It can help to have “people with whom you can dwell on these emotions and explore them without fear of someone minimizing them or brushing the distress off as catastrophic thinking,” Wray said.
But often, teenagers say they don’t receive that type of validation from adults in their lives.
“My friends are like, ‘Oh, I talked to my mom, and I’m like, ‘The planet is going to be dead by 2050,’ and she’s like, ‘That’s what they’ve been saying since I was a kid, and it hasn’t died yet!’” Jia said. “It feels kind of like, dismissive.”
I don’t know anybody my age who’s like, ‘Yeah, I want to have kids.'
There’s a growing movement for mental health professionals to be trained to treat climate anxiety. And some universities are in the initial stages of starting to offer climate stress therapy for students, the Washington Post has reported.
But so far, this conversation has been largely missing from K-12 schools, where there are already not enough school counselors to meet young people’s growing mental health needs, experts say.
While the National Association of School Psychologists adopted a resolution in April 2021 to support efforts to reduce the harmful effects of climate change on children, tackling climate anxiety hasn’t been at the forefront of the group’s priorities, said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of policy and advocacy for the group.
“This is an issue that students are paying attention to, … [but] I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily rising to the top of things we hear,” she said, citing other mental health challenges for young people that have been exacerbated since the pandemic.
Plus, targeted interventions for climate anxiety, especially in high school or middle school students, are still in a nascent phase of study, said Lian Zeitz, the co-founder and director of programs for the Climate Mental Health Network, a nonprofit funded by the Global Fund for Mental Health.
“What does it mean for a generation of young people to be experiencing such existential dread?” he said. “How do we build tools and resources that promote resilience and climate-related action and social connection—things that serve as antidotes to the negative effects of that existential dread, which can be despair and apathy and inaction and maybe isolation, [which can] become depression.”
The Climate Mental Health Network is working with partners to develop resources for middle school teachers to incorporate social-emotional learning practices into science lessons and discussions on climate change. It plans to pilot these resources next school year.
Teachers will need support and self-care while having these conversations, Zeitz added: “It isn’t easy navigating existential conversations with young people or kids that are saying they don’t want to have babies because the climate is ending and everything’s on fire.”
Climate anxiety can be incorporated into districts’ SEL work, experts say
Despite schools’ emphasis on social-emotional competencies and wellbeing, climate anxiety generally hasn’t been a part of that work, said Shai Fuxman, a senior research scientist at the Education Development Center, which works with districts across the country on their SEL needs.
“The connection between that and climate change and climate anxiety hasn’t been made, but it’s not a difficult link to make,” he said. “The skills that we’re already teaching—around self-empowerment, managing emotions, developing goals and setting goals and achieving goals—those are all skills that can easily be applied to the conversations that teachers are having with students around climate change.”
Experts say that teachers should foster a sense of agency and self-efficacy among students when they discuss climate change. While climate change is largely driven by corporations, individuals can still take action—and more than half of the teenagers who responded to the EdWeek survey said they wanted to learn in school what they could personally do to lessen the effects of climate change. About a quarter said when they think of climate change, they feel motivated.
Fuxman said the climate crisis is an opportunity for educators to teach about collective action and working with others toward a common goal.
“Not only will it help address climate change, but it’s a good skill for them to have anyway—to feel a part of something bigger can actually help build self-esteem,” he said. “Like, ‘I’m part of the movement and part of something that is happening to save our planet.’ I think it can be restoring, too, from a mental health perspective.”
While teenage activism around climate change often makes headlines, few survey respondents said they’ve attended climate demonstrations or contacted elected officials in the past two years. Thirty-seven percent of teenagers say they haven’t taken any actions related to climate change during that time period.
“I think a lot of kids are frozen—they either want to push it out of their minds and not think about it, or they’re frozen,” said Goddard, of the EDC. “People will say, ‘Oh, kids just don’t care,’ or, ‘Look at these really wonderful kids out there being activists,’ but there’s this whole group in the middle that I think often just feels like they’re stuck.”
The facts of climate change are overwhelming, but Goddard said it can help for teenagers to work toward change in their own community, such as petitioning school officials to install solar panels on buildings.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m gonna change the world.’ You have to break off a piece of it,” she said.
Schools may have to navigate politically tricky waters
One potential barrier to schools’ helping with the social-emotional toll of the climate crisis? Politics.
While most American adults believe in human-driven climate change, more Republicans than Democrats believe climate change is caused by natural patterns, and Democrats are more likely to have substantial concerns about the environment, surveys show.
Even the term social-emotional learning has drawn the ire of some conservatives, who fear it is teaching their children values they don’t approve of.
“We’re really thinking about how we get resources to people in a range of contexts,” said Zeitz, of the Climate Mental Health Network. “I don’t have all the answers about how to do that, but it’s been clear for us—if we’re really trying to reach more young people and more school systems, we’ll just have to be adaptive to how certain things are framed based on education legislation.”
This work also may require a mindset shift among the adults in school buildings, said Wray, the author of Generation Dread. For one thing, adults will have to come to terms with the fact that young people have a different mindset than they did about their futures.
“Have compassion for that and get curious about really trying to understand the granularity of what that climate anxiety feels like—how it can make a young person feel futureless and abandoned by older generations, which is profound psychological distress that can tear away at the social underpinnings of wellbeing,” Wray said.
After all, climate anxiety can lead to teenagers feeling unmotivated, distracted, and in particularly severe cases, depressed or even suicidal, Wray said: “It’s a serious issue that demands serious consideration and support.”
In the lead photo, Jia Sharma-Chaube, 15, left, and Croix Hill, 16, students at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans pose for a portrait. Photo by Christiana Botic for Education Week.
Coverage of how climate change is affecting students’ learning and well-being is supported in part by a grant from the Education Writers’ Association Reporting Fellowship program, at www.ewa.org/fellowship. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2023 edition of Education Week as Teens Are Struggling With Climate Anxiety. Schools Haven’t Caught Up Yet