The Link Between Environment and Mental Health

A group of young people stand in the street holding signs

Many traditional indicators of youth well-being are showing positive trends. Drug use, smoking, and pregnancy rates are down among teenagers and high school graduation rates are on the rise. This is good news, but the realities of youth mental health don’t match these social indicators. Younger generations are facing a mental health crisis with record high levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation among teens. Youth mental health is complex and there’s no single explanation for why anxiety and depression are so prevalent. Climate change, however, is certainly part of the equation.

Three teenagers stand in the woods smiling

One recent study shows a neurological link between the stress pregnant women experience during severe weather events driven by climate change like Hurricane Sandy and the mental health outcomes of their children up to ten years later. Youth who experienced Hurricane Sandy while still in utero were more likely to have psychiatric conditions by the time they entered school. In this study and others, scientists are drawing connections between the changing climate and the health of our brains. This includes documenting correlations between heat spikes and hateful or violent behavior, as well as identifying the impacts of increased CO2 level on our ability to make decisions, problem solve, and learn. These are worrying findings as we watch the pace of environmental degradation accelerate globally.

Several young people sit in a circle with an adult

Unfortunately, these are not the only impacts of climate change on mental health. In addition to physical changes in the health of our brains, the emotional effects on young people of thinking and worrying about climate change are also very serious. Youth today are more aware of the environmental crisis than any previous generation. While this is good news for motivating collective action to mitigate climate change, the stress of the responsibility for saving the planet is leading to widespread feelings of grief, hopelessness, and anxiety among youth. 

A group of teens in neon vests pick up trash on a beach

As we approach these complex issues, it is important to note that the causes and effects of environmental degradation are not equally distributed. Carbon emissions are driven by large corporations and the wealthiest among us, while the actuality of living with severe weather, pollution, and land use change is disproportionately felt by poor communities of color. We cannot hope to make progress on climate change unless we fully acknowledge and address this reality.

An older child and younger child kneel down and plant a tree together

NRF is working to be part of the solution in multiple ways. We’re committed to supporting environmental and climate action through the programs we fund. Our grantee partners are actively engaged in promoting positive youth mental outcomes through community building, mentorship, and education. There’s a long road ahead when it comes to mitigating both a climate and mental health crisis, but we’re proud of the work our grantees do every day to create positive change in their communities. Of course, NRF and our grantee partners aren’t the only ones doing good work in this area. Organizations like the Climate Mental Health Network also are engaged in critical efforts to manage the psychological and emotional impacts of climate change. These kinds of initiatives provide hope for a collaborative and youth-focused movement that will create a healthier and more sustainable future.