Climate Stress in Students

Teens deal with many different sources of stress in their lives, including a sometimes unexpected one: climate anxiety

According+to+the+Yale+Program+on+Climate+Change+Communication%2C+one+in+five+Americans+are+very+worried+about+climate+change+and+a+majority+of+Americans+feel+helpless+about+the+issue.

Jocelyn Harte

According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, one in five Americans are very worried about climate change and a majority of Americans feel helpless about the issue.

By Julianne Berry-Stoelzle and Nina Lavezzo-Stecopoulos

For Avery Wilson ‘20, living with anxiety is a struggle, but over time, she has developed ways to cope. However,  when it comes to climate change, she can’t talk herself down.

“Climate anxiety is hard to stop. Because for lots of things I feel anxious about, I can talk myself down and realize that they’re irrational thoughts. But for climate, it’s not irrational. It’s a real thing that’s happening,” Wilson said.

The American Psychological Association lists the acute and chronic consequences of climate change as trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, compounded stress, strains on social relationships, depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, aggression and violence, loss of personally important places, loss of autonomy and control, loss of personal and occupational identity, feelings of helplessness, fear, fatalism, solastalgia, and eco-anxiety.

“Well, [climate change] feeds into things that my anxiety already tells me: that it’s pointless to work hard and be successful and get to a place you want to be in. Because by the time we get to that place, there’s not going to be a world for us to live in. So, [climate anxiety] stops me from being motivated to do things,” Wilson said.

Climate change is a very stressful issue for Justine Reschly-Krasowski ‘20. She buys clothes second hand, recycles everything she can, and uses shampoo and conditioner without chemicals. 

“I don’t want everything to die,” Reschly-Krasowski said. “I know [climate change] will affect all of us. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to do but I know it’s going to be pretty disastrous if we don’t do something [and] at the moment, we’re not really doing anything.”

Sometimes I’m like ‘What does it matter if I recycle this like one bottle by taking it home instead of throwing it away here?’ But I do it anyway and hope that maybe it makes at least a little bit of a difference.”

— Reschly-Krasowski

This lack of progress makes it hard for Reschly-Krasowski to stay positive about the future. She feels like CEOs of big companies have to take action against climate change in order to see a change. 

“I try to do things to be environmentally conscious, but I know most people don’t,” Reschly-Krasowski said. “Sometimes I’m like ‘What does it matter if I recycle this like one bottle by taking it home instead of throwing it away here?’ But I do it anyway and hope that maybe it makes at least a little bit of a difference.”

Wilson also makes efforts to help the environment, similarly to Reschly-Krasowski. For Wilson, her efforts are more than preventative actions, they ease some of her anxiety about climate change.

“I think for me, coping mechanisms are my own personal choices because I can’t control what other people do,” Wilson said. “But I can make choices that I can minimize my carbon footprint, even if I can’t change it for everybody.”

Noah Weaver ‘20 feels like his actions are having some impact, but agrees that more people need to take initiative in order to combat climate change.

“I feel like I can do stuff but it just gets to a point where other people have to take that initiative too because they have the contacts,” Weaver said.

Jill Humston is a science teacher at City High, who has had multiple students talk to her outside of class because of their worries about climate change.

“It’s really disheartening for students who see the problem, have been hearing the problem since they were little, and still feeling like nothing’s happening,” Humston said.

The evidence has been around for a long, long time, and it just seems like people aren’t doing anything about it. The people that want to do things about it are not being listened to.”

— Humston

According to a press release from the American Psychological Association, climate change not only affects the environment but will also result in a rise of cardiovascular failure, mental health impacts, asthma, cholera, and numerous other impacts on the health of mankind. 

“The evidence has been around for a long, long time, and it just seems like people aren’t doing anything about it. The people that want to do things about it are not being listened to,” Humston said. “We’re ignoring evidence. We’re ignoring science.”

Yardley Whaylen ‘20, a member of the Iowa City Climate Strikers, feels as though her elected officials don’t have the right priorities.  

“I think a lot of older politicians who benefit from the coal industry are using their personal benefits over the world’s benefits,” Whaylen said. “[I feel] pissed because, are you kidding me? You know, like, stop putting yourself before us. I think it’s greedy.”

For Wilson, climate change is her number one issue in the 2020 election.

“I feel like for every candidate, every politician, their number one priority needs to be the climate because you can change the healthcare system and other things, but that’s not going to matter in 20 years if there’s no earth to live on,” Wilson.

While the lack of forwards progress on climate change can seem overwhelming, young climate activists, such as Greta Thunberg, continue to argue for change.

“At least some of the media is turning their attention towards young people about the environment saying we need to listen to the young people like Greta Thunberg, and other climate activists that are around the world who are pretty young,” Reschly-Krasowski said. “That’s what gives me hope. I just hope it can reach more people.”

While Reschly-Krasowski appreciates the work of the climate strikers, she is doubtful that people with power to have a great impact, such as CEOs of big companies, will listen to them.

“A lot of [adults] just say, ‘Oh no, they’re too young to know anything,’” Reschly-Krasowski said. “Just because they’re young doesn’t mean they’re not right. I think for something so important, we need people no matter what their ages to be speaking out.”

In the fall of 2019, over 4 million people participated in a global climate strike. 

“Listen to the young generations, listen to the kids,” Whaylen said. “Because we actually know what we’re doing. And we know what we’re saying. And we’re listening to science. Listen to us. Listen to the future of the country.”

Listen to the young generations, listen to the kids because we actually know what we’re doing. Listen to us. Listen to the future of the country.”

— Whaylen

Humston believes that young climate advocates are making a difference. 

“It gives [young people] power, because it can feel very powerless to be a student who’s not voting yet, and not seeing the adults who should be making changes doing it fast enough,” Humston said. “It’s very powerful to see [Greta] and other students doing the same things.”

Another difference between the generations that Humpsten has noticed is a contrast in expectations of what improvement looks like.

“I think maybe as an adult, we understand that change takes time,” Humston said. “As an adult, you understand the process of change, whereas young people see the need for something to happen and want it to happen right now, because it should happen right now. It’s just the wheels of change don’t move fast enough.”

Humston described how pollution used to be a lot worse before past policies and changes improved conditions. Adults have experienced this change, and therefore may have more belief in the system.

“If you look back at pictures, you can see pollution everywhere. You can see how bad rivers and streams looked. And that was something that we grew up with. And we saw it happening and we saw it changing,” Humston said.

But although progress has occurred in the past, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, one in five Americans are very worried about climate change and a majority of Americans feel helpless about the issue. Weaver and Reschly-Krasowski both noticed that a lot of their stress about climate change is triggered from news articles about the severity of climate change.

“Seeing articles about big companies still refusing to switch to green energy, or they produce this much emissions per year, or we have five years to save everything, that really stresses me out,” Reschly-Krasowski said.

While climate change may not seem to have an immediate impact, people are becoming more aware of climate change and stressing more about it.

“It may seem like what we’re doing now may not affect us right now, but it can definitely affect us later,” Weaver said. “I want to do something in the future. I don’t want it to be taken away because other people are not doing what they should.”

This story was originally published on The Little Hawk on May 16, 2020.