This post is part of a Mental Health Awareness Month blog series that highlights “Closer Look” perspectives from the 2021 edition of Mental Health and Our Changing Climate. This is a reprint from the report.
American Youth: Angry, Terrified, and in Despair
As the expert witness on the psychological damages to 21 youth plaintiffs in the Juliana v. US case, I saw first-hand the fear, anger, and despair that climate disruption is causing young people. I also saw the role the US government has in not only failing to take appropriate action but in engaging in practices that make it worse.
Awash in feelings of betrayal — worldwide — children are flooding the streets in protest. Seeing a planet that may soon be unrecognizably damaged, some see no future.
UNICEF reports that one billion children are at ‘extremely high risk’ from climate disruption. The Lancet published a recent global survey of youth showing that climate anxiety affects the daily life of nearly half of them; and 63% of US youth say the government is failing them. Children, as with many of us, have personally experienced the floods, fires, and hell-on-earth heat. They can see what is happening with their own eyes.
Experiencing, witnessing, or even hearing the details of life-threatening events can cause deep and persistent psychological trauma, unleashing a multitude of conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Struggling with images of future harm they can’t put out of their minds, some children suffer pre-traumatic stress.
When disasters are experienced as entirely “accidental,” healing from the injuries or losses is less arduous. With disasters due to human error, carelessness, or negligence, healing is dramatically encumbered by the knowledge that the disasters could have been averted.
Natural disasters are no longer experienced as entirely natural anymore: their frequency and intensity is caused by the dangerous choices humans are making.
Our children cannot be relieved of their fears with words. Real menace is thrusting them into existential uncertainty. We must acknowledge that the psychological well-being of our children is on the line. Holding ourselves accountable for their outrage and despair is crucial and time-sensitive. Unless we act, the injustice they and future generations face will have them regard adults today, who stood by informed and idle, as depraved.
Across the globe, youth are crying out to leaders of the world: “Can you hear us now? What’s the plan? Will you be helping to save us because we know that our survival depends on government action.”
More of us are waking up, looking for policies that chart a course for ambitious and equitable climate action. But we have to hurry because time is running out.
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