Climate change is increasingly prompting mental health problems among college students

Grace van Deelen, Research Intern at Tufts University Office of Sustainability 

Recently, colleges and universities are witnessing a sharp increase in the number of students seeking mental health treatment. In line with the national trend, Tufts University has seen a notable increase in the number of students with significant and ongoing mental health needs.  

In response to increased needs for mental health resources, Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco launched the Mental Health Task Force in 2016. After undertaking extensive research on the mental health needs trends in all four campuses, the Mental Health Task Force reported in 2019 that students are suffering from increasing mental health issues, particularly those related to anxiety and severe stress. 

While the Report of the Mental Health Task Force did not mention the environment as a possible contributing reason, climate change’s associated mental health risks could be responsible for this sharp increase in the number of students with mental health needs. Climate change could contribute to mental health disorders in multiple ways, either directly or indirectly, and affects even those of us who do not live in places experiencing climate-change-induced natural disasters. Here are some of the following ways that climate change affects mental well-being: 

Immediate or long-term exposure to climate-induced natural disasters has been proven to cause multiple mental health disorders.  

The most common varieties of mental health disorders caused by this direct experience with climate change are post-traumatic stress disorders, increased levels of anxiety, depression, increases in aggressive behavior and domestic violence, and self-harm that might lead to suicidal ideation and substance abuse. In fact, according to a 2016 study from the American Psychological Association, 25-50% of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of adverse mental health effects.  

Climate change could create a feeling of loss or grief for a changing world.  

While the direct mental health impacts of climate-change-induced traumatic events are important, climate change can incur mental health impacts in individuals who have not experienced such events, as well. Even the tiny changes in one’s environment, such as a decrease in yearly snowfall, or a shifting of other familiar seasonal markers, can create a sense of anxiety. One paper by Wooster College Psychology Professor Susan Clayton described climate anxiety as a “loss of ontological security,” which is a feeling that one’s knowledge, way of being, or understanding of the world is no longer true due to the landscape changes that climate change can cause. Other vocabulary that describes this feeling include: solastalgia, a type of loss that happens when people become less familiar with the place in which they live, biospheric concern, a type of anxiety that happens when people perceive animals or plants in danger, and eco-anxiety, a feeling of loss, helplessness, and frustration caused by climate change, according to Paolo Cianconi, a neuroscience professor at Catholic University in Rome, Italy. 

Climate change can cause anxiety and worry about the future among young people.  

This climate anxiety or “eco-anxiety,” according to the American Psychological Association, is a leading cause of worry among young adults and college students. The unpredictability of climate change increases worry and anxiety in college students because they tend to be young people who spend much of their time planning for the future. A 2018 Gallup poll of 4,103 adults living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that 70% of 18- to-34 year-olds worry “a great deal” about global warming, compared to 63% of adults aged 35- to-54 and 56% of adults aged 55 and older. A national poll by Clayton in 2019 found that 57% of teens said that “climate change makes them feel afraid.” The same poll found that “a small, but not inconsequential, proportion of the public (17-27%) reported a degree of climate anxiety that was having some impact on their ability to function.” In general, younger age groups worry more about climate change than older adults.  

Climate change is making young people re-think their life plans.  

A 2020 Washington Post article quoted an 18-year-old from Alabama on the confounding stresses of college life during the climate crisis; “The ice caps are melting and my hypothetical children won’t get to see them, but also I have a calculus test tomorrow.” This is a familiar feeling among college students, and having children is becoming a widespread topic of concern among young people. This trend is evidenced by movements such as the BirthStrike movement, a worldwide movement of people refusing to have children due to the ecological crisis. A New York Times poll in 2018 found that “25% of the 1,800 Americans surveyed said they expected to have fewer children than they considered ideal; of these, 33% cited worry about climate change.” 

Climate change’s mental health impacts will continue to be more widespread.  

As climate change accelerates, the mental health impacts of climate change will not only be limited to young people and those who have experienced climate-induced traumatic events. As climate change becomes more widespread and serious, so will its mental health impacts, according to a paper by Policy Analyst Dr. Katie Hayes. For example, while the Boston area has been spared from the most severe hurricanes and wildfires recently, it can expect to see continued increases in sea levels, extreme precipitation, and extreme high temperatures in the future, according to Boston Research Advisory Group’s 2016 report . Even though Tufts may seem far away from these events at the moment, climate-induced natural disasters will become more common in the future. Furthermore, is important to note that many Tufts students either live in or have family in parts of the world that are experiencing climate disasters far more frequently than the Boston area, and are therefore susceptible to the immediate mental health impacts that these events can bring.  

Individual and institutional commitments to climate activism, along with climate literacy among counselors, can help to alleviate these climate-induced mental health problems, according to Yale Climate Connections. Part of the efforts to alleviate these mental health issues among college students should include initiatives from universities that display a commitment to meaningful climate action, in addition to improving campus mental health resources. 

The full Tufts Office of Sustainability memo on this topic can be found here, while an annotated bibliography of literature pertaining to this topic can be found here.

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