Addressing the Youth Mental Health Crisis Requires Equitably Addressing the Climate Crisis

By Whitney Bunts and Kayla Tawa

CLASP recognizes the important ways in which climate change impacts the people and policies we advocate for. This blog is the third in a series exploring the intersection of environmental justice and economic security for people living with low incomes. Explore the series here.

To kick off Mental Health Awareness Month, the Biden-Harris Administration released a proclamation that called attention to the youth mental health crisis. While the administration has acknowledged the structural barriers that impact young people’s mental health, its policy focus centers the role social media plays in harming youth mental health. This limited solution will do little to break cycles of oppression and bring about the changes young people are asking for. The Biden-Harris Administration must expand its focus and do more to advance policies that address structural barriers impacting youth mental health.

Equitably and effectively tackling the youth mental health crisis requires addressing the underlying structural factors—such as racism, poverty, and climate change—that harm young people’s mental health. Young people rightly feel anxious, angry, scared, and sad by climate catastrophes, let alone rising hate crimes, racial violence, economic injustices, and the overall lack of safety in their communities, in this country, and on this planet.

Climate anxiety—an intense worry, fear, sadness, or stress about climate change—is widespread among young people. A recent study found that around 90 percent of young people nationally reported feeling some level of worry about climate change, with over 40 percent feeling very or extremely worried.

Climate anxiety is not equitably felt, with communities of color and communities with low incomes at greater risk of experiencing climate-related disasters. For people of color and people living with low incomes who are already facing ambient anxiety from racism, colonialism, and poverty, climate change compounds existing stress. These factors are likely to increase the risk of developing mental health problems, particularly in children and young people, who often face multiple life stressors without having the power to reduce, prevent, or avoid such stressors.

The same survey found that U.S. young people felt their government was failing young people across the world by not doing enough to avoid climate catastrophe. This governmental inaction on climate change further harms young people’s mental health, with the researchers concluding, “to protect the mental health and wellbeing of young people, those in power can act to reduce stress and distress by recognising, understanding, and validating the fears and pain of young people, acknowledging their rights, and placing them at the center of policymaking.”

Placing young people at the center of policymaking requires advancing policy solutions that young people advocate for. In CLASP’s work on youth mental health, young people, particularly those with marginalized identities, have rarely mentioned social media among their key concerns. Rather, they shared how they use social media to find  and create community.

When policymakers fail to center lived experience, they misdiagnose problems and create harmful solutions, feeding a cycle of more problems. This cycle is playing out now with climate change, environmental racism, and youth mental health. Despite knowing about these problems for decades and young people clearly naming the root causes of their mental health challenges as systemic, the government failed to act, resulting in the climate crisis and youth mental health crisis worsening.

To address the structural problems, including climate change, that are worsening young people’s mental health Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration must advance environmental justice by:

  • Meeting the demands of the most impacted communities by adopting proposals these communities have created—like the Red Deal and the 17 principles of Environmental Justice— and authentically engaging them through design and implementation of policy solutions.
  • Investing in a regenerative economy, which requires “re-localization and democratization of how we produce and consume goods, and ensures all have full access to healthy food, renewable energy, clean air and water, good jobs, and healthy living environments.” A regenerative economy is anti-racist and anti-poverty and doesn’t align with white supremacist ideology. It shifts power back to communities.
  • Providing mental health services that address intergenerational trauma and health inequities by providing trauma-informed, healing-centered, and culturally responsive mental health services and supports.

As a country, we have always struggled with taking responsibility for the oppressive harm we create in society. This Mental Health Awareness Month, Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration have the opportunity to create policy solutions that address the oppressive systems contributing to the youth mental health crisis and make bold moves to ensure a safe and hospitable planet.