Climate Change Resource Center
Last updated October 2023
The effects of climate change, including higher global temperatures, rising sea levels, and increased frequency and severity of extreme weather are causing problems for human health. These problems include heat-related illness, asthma and allergies, heart and lung disease, spreading infectious diseases, and threats to the safety and availability of food and water. Children are more vulnerable than adults to these negative health outcomes. The World Health Organization estimates that over 85% of the burden of climate change is borne by children under the age of five. By the end of the century, it is predicted that one billion youth <18-years-old (i.e., nearly half of all children and adolescents worldwide) will be at “extremely high risk” of climate change-related health effects, particularly in communities of color and low-income settings.
Children and adolescents are also more susceptible to the mental health consequences of climate change. These consequences include direct harm from heat and pollution as well as negative outcomes after experiencing climate change-related events such as extreme weather, wildfires, or forced migration. Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use disorders have all been linked to climate change-related traumas.
Distressing feelings about climate change are not a form of mental illness, but like any form of stress and worry can be difficult for young people to cope with.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does climate change affect mental health?
Some elements of climate change, including higher temperatures and air pollution, impact mental health directly. Hotter weather is linked to increased mental health crises, violence, and self-harm. Heat can also impair sleep, and has been shown to make it harder for children to learn in school. Air pollution has been linked to a wide range of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression and dementia. There are also growing data indicating that exposure to air pollution during important periods of development, including for fetuses in utero, can increase the risk of neurodevelopmental problems like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autistic traits in childhood.
Climate change also affects mental health indirectly, as extreme weather and related events including hurricanes, floods, and wildfires become more common and more severe. Living through a climate-related disaster can lead to experiencing a range of traumas, and can increase the risk of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use disorders.
Climate change also is causing more severe and frequent slow-moving disasters, like droughts, famines, and loss of land due to rising seas or expanding deserts. These events can cause long-term, chronic stress that negatively impacts individuals and whole communities.
Other indirect mental health effects of climate change come from ripple effects of the changing natural world around us. As temperatures change, the places where insects and other disease-carrying vectors live change too. This means that in many areas, people will be exposed to diseases that they currently do not encounter, including some with effects on the brain. It has also been shown that many crops grown in higher levels of carbon dioxide have less protein and absorb fewer micronutrients. In areas without fortified foods, these changes may lead to significant nutritional deficiencies with mental health effects, including depression and developmental delays.
Finally, climate change is a major source of emotional distress. There are many negative feelings commonly associated with climate change, including fear, anxiety, anger, betrayal, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness and grief. Young people are more likely than adults to experience these negative feelings, and they are also more likely to feel that these feelings impact their daily lives and their decision-making. This phenomenon is broadly referred to as “climate distress.”
Is “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety” a mental illness?
Anxiety is a healthy, adaptive reaction to a dangerous or threatening situation. Anxiety alerts us to danger and gives us time to react and prepare. It is natural to feel worried and sad when confronted with how climate change and other forms of ecological breakdown are impacting us and our world today, and how this disruption and loss will escalate in the future.
While feeling anxious about climate change is normal, and should not be minimized, coping with that anxiety and other difficult emotions is important. Overwhelming anxiety can lead to paralysis or avoidance – responses that can interfere with the system-level work needed for us to adapt to the climate crisis. Coping can allow us to feel empowered to take action to protect ourselves and the planet.
Rarely, anxiety or distress about climate change – like any source of stress – can become severe or even interfere with function. This could be trouble with sleep, difficulty in school or other activities, inability to find enjoyment, hopelessness, or even thoughts of self-harm. In this case, it is important to connect with treatment.
How can I support a child who is anxious about climate change?
Model Your Own Healthy Coping: As with any stressor, young people can sense when adults are feeling worried or when they intentionally avoid a topic. Oftentimes, avoidance leads to more anxiety or stress for children than it would to talk about the topic directly – even when the topic itself is challenging or distressing.
Caregivers need to cope with their own potentially strong or negative feelings about climate change in order to effectively help the young people in their lives. Many of the suggestions listed here about how to support children with climate distress are equally good for adult caregivers.
Monitor Media Sources and Exposure: Staying informed and educated about climate change is important. It can be a healthy way of managing worry or sadness and of identifying opportunities to take action. At the same time, there is an overwhelming amount of online content about climate change, including a great deal of “click-bait.”
“Doom Scrolling,” or consuming lots of negative online content, can masquerade as climate engagement or activism. Usually, it is actually a form of avoidance and doesn’t make anyone feel better, nor does it typically inspire action. Adults should be aware of their own sources of information, and help older children monitor and assess the way they are interacting with this content. Putting a time limit on social media engagement, or choosing to get information from only a few trusted sources, can be a way to stay informed without becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed.
For younger children, it is important to monitor exposure to all potentially scary or distressing news media, regardless of topic. Sources should be trustworthy and it is important to have a trusted adult to ask questions and help interpret information. Caregivers can proactively provide age-appropriate information about climate change (see resources) to help children gain understanding and, hopefully, a sense of agency.
Listen Without Minimizing: Climate change is a real threat to everyone, and especially to young people. As parents or other adult caregivers, it can be hard to hear youth talk about their distress and resist jumping in to provide reassurance – which can feel like minimizing.
Adults can help by validating young people’s concerns, listening and being curious about their thoughts, while also demonstrating adult commitment to taking action and supporting whatever action young people are motivated to take part in.
Take and Support Collective Action: Mounting evidence indicates that specifically collective action – joining with a group of peers or community members – helps improve engagement on environmental issues and makes climate distress less impairing. There are many effective climate action groups, including organizers specifically for parents and caregivers (e.g. Mothers Out Front, Mom’s Clean Air Force) or specific to a given interest or affiliation (e.g. neighborhood groups, occupation-specific groups, or groups within a faith-based community).
Modeling adult climate action can be a potent way to help young people cope with their climate distress and feel like they have not been left to address climate change on their own. It is also a way to target the core problem: our ongoing reliance on fossil fuels that is driving climate change itself. Supporting young people who want to get involved is also essential, and there are many youth-led organizations that are at the forefront of the climate movement.