Natural disasters associated with climate change and the climate crisis pose a direct threat to the mental health and well-being of young people.

Today marks World Mental Health Day, an opportunity for researchers, policymakers, and advocates around the globe to come together to promote and protect mental health. Young people (ages 10-19 years old) make up 13% of those with poor mental health. Globally, about one in seven 10-19 year olds experience a mental disorder, particularly depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders. Children and adolescents are at higher risk of presenting negative mental health outcomes, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused major disruptions to their lives. These youth with diverse sexual orientations, from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and/or living in high violence contexts (including school and family violence), are disproportionately affected. Health systems, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) already struggle to offer mental health services and support to young people, increasing their risk for negative mental health outcomes.

Natural disasters associated with climate change and the climate crisis pose a direct threat to the mental health and well-being of young people.

The climate crisis is an intergenerational issue, with a child born in 2020 predicted to experience up to 7 times more climate events compared to someone born in 1960. Climate events may directly impact mental health, but also work through various indirect pathways, for example, increasing economic insecurity, creating uncertainty, loss of land rights, migration, exposure to violence, and loss of cultural ties between people and their lands. These are all factors that may impact mental health. 

Our recent paper in the PLoS Global Public Health, a special issue on mental health, sheds light on the potential harms that climate change is causing to Mexican youth. Through our online VoCes-19 survey we reached 168,407 young people (15-24 years old) to ask a variety of questions, including experience of climate related events (drought, flood, heat waves, and hurricanes) and experience of anxiety and depression (combined into “common mental health disorders or CMD”). Adjusting for demographic characteristics, we found that exposure to any climate event, particularly heat waves, increased CMD. Further, specific climate harms such as housing damage, loss of/or inability to work, damage to family business, leaving school, and physical health also all harmed CMD. 

Climate anxiety is increasingly reported among young people, as well as dissatisfaction with how governments and adult leaders are managing the climate crisis. A recent study of 10,000 young people across 10 countries found most were worried about climate, and that their feelings affected their daily life and functioning. Climate anxiety and distress were high in our study in Mexico as well, particularly among those that had experienced a climate event in the last year. Our study also found a link between perceived agency in relation to climate change agency and mental health; Young people who felt they could do something about climate change were less likely to experience concern about climate change, than those who felt they could not mitigate the impacts of climate events.  

On this World Mental Health Day and in advance of the 28th COP meeting in December, this is a call to action that it is critical to create policy focused on the mental health needs of the rising generation.