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Natural disasters and pollution linked to climate change are affecting young people's mental health

New research says natural disasters and pollution linked to climate change are contributing factors to high rates of anxiety and depression among young people. Suzanne Potter of California News Service has more.

Researchers from San Francisco-based Hopelab consulted experts and interviewed youth climate activists to determine how climate impacts — like wildfire, extreme heat, drought, flooding, and air pollution — are affecting young people's mental health. Dr. Emma Bruehlman-Senecal is the research lead at Hopelab and the author of the Climate Generation blog.

"We are focusing on climate change because Hopelab's mission is to support the mental well-being of young people, particularly those from communities that have been under-invested in. And it's clear that climate change is deeply impacting youth mental health, particularly the well-being of youth of color."

Hopelab's findings recommend more funding for youth-led activism, but also to make mental health services more accessible by locating them in places where young people spend their time, such as schools and community centers.

Another Bay Area nonprofit, YouthTruth, paired up with the Sonoma County Office of Education to survey students over the past eight years. The country's YouthTruth lead, Jessica Progulske, says after 2017, when thousands of homes burned down in a series of wildfires, reports of depression and anxiety shot up

"Some of the early research around resiliency indicates that the ability to do something about it, as a student, has the potential to offset some of the later health risks associated with childhood adversity — in spite of climate change, and climate anxiety and dread that comes with it."

So, the Community Foundation of Sonoma County launched the Environmental Justice Coalition, which partners groups of students with a mentor to work on local environmental issues.

Jimmy Simpson, director of partnerships with YouthTruth, says the disruption of the wildfires, followed by COVID, took a toll early on.

"There was a definite correlation between students significantly impacted, relating to less positive perceptions around engagement in school, as well as their sense of belonging, and academics."

More recent surveys show while the immediate impact of the firestorm has lessened, episodes of anxiety and depression continue to affect school performance.

Suzanne Potter is a journalist with 30 years of experience as a reporter for TV, radio and print news. She spent 15 years as a local TV news reporter in Palm Springs, CA and Providence, RI. She earned a B.A. in Mass Communications from UC Berkeley and spent a year at the Sorbonne in Paris. She lives in Palm Desert, CA, is married with four children and is a longtime leader with the Boy Scouts of America.