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Kootenay pre-med student studies ‘climate anxiety’ in youth

‘Government inaction on climate major contributor to extreme levels of anxiety in youth; study

As the climate crisis intensifies, climate anxiety is becoming more common – especially for youth.

The high level of youth climate anxiety in our local area has not been known until recently.

A new study ( by Kaitlyn Taburiaux as part of her third-year Rural Pre-Medicine research project conducted a survey of 100 Selkirk College students between the ages of 18 and 25. Survey questions were based on those from a landmark global study published in The Lancet in December, which surveyed 10,000 youth in 10 countries about their concerns about climate change.

“Growing up in the Kootenays I have always had a great appreciation for the nature around me, so seeing the effects of the climate crisis on a local level has led me to develop climate anxiety, a mental health concern many youth are experiencing,” said Taburiaux. “I wanted to understand the mental health impacts of the climate crisis on local youth because young people have an increased risk of developing mental health concerns during this crucial period of development.”

Large numbers of youth respondents in the Selkirk study reported emotional distress and a wide range of complex and unpleasant emotions, with over half of respondents feeling sad, helpless, anxious, afraid, angry, and powerless because of climate change. Almost 80 percent were very or extremely worried that climate threatens people and the planet, which is considerably higher than the 60 per cent in the global study.

Some other stark results were that 51 per cent of respondents are hesitant to have children because of climate change, 73 per cent think that “the future is frightening”, and 81 per cent think that people have failed to take care of the planet.

Both the global and local studies indicated that youth believe “governments are failing young people around the world” (74 per cent for the local study and 65 per cent for the global study). Government inaction is impacting youth mental health as shown by the positive correlation between negative feelings about government actions and the number of negative feelings, thoughts and impacts from climate anxiety.

“The climate crisis is affecting the daily activities of local youth: eating, concentrating, working, studying, having fun, spending time on recreation, and spending time in nature,” said Taburiaux.

“When mental health concerns begin to affect the daily life of youth, it increases their chances of facing unemployment, higher poverty rates, and social isolation, and increases vulnerability to physical health conditions,” Taburiaux explained. “Chronic stress of climate anxiety in youth can permanently change brain structure and function. Youth’s underdeveloped physiological defence systems and the accumulation of climate risks across their lifespan add to their vulnerability.”

The research study was done in collaboration with the Nelson-West Kootenay chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL).

“These results are very sobering,” said Laura Sacks with CCL. “The most obvious solution is for governments to get more serious about immediate climate action at the scale the crisis warrants.”

Taburiaux and CCL members are meeting with area MPs and MLAs to discuss the study. MP Richard Cannings has asked for a briefing note to share with his colleagues in Parliament.

“It’s clear from this study that governments and other leaders should also meaningfully involve youth in climate decision-making so that they have some sense of agency for climate solutions,” said Sacks.