How young Californians are dealing with climate anxiety

When he was 6 years old, Sim Bilal started having nightmares about flood poured over his South Los Angeles home.

The bad dreams started when he first watched Al Gore’s “An Inconfying Truth”, a popular documentary about human-driven global warming, with his parents. For years, he struggled with serious anxiety about the fate of the planet. In a period of time, he will return from school and lie in bed, feeling helpless in the face of the growing climate crisis.

“I’m not a very emotional person, but this is a huge existential problem,” Bilal, 20. “It’s really debilitating.”

As he learned more about what sea level rise would look like, he began to envision what his city could become. Homes are flooded, trees wither from the heat, butterflies and bees face extinction, famine spreads, crops die in the Central Valley. Last summer, he felt it was all about to come true with wildfires raging across the state, filling the skies with smoke and flames for months.

In an age of droughts, heat waves, wildfires and sea level rise, young people are especially vulnerable to feelings of environmental destruction, as they are reaching adulthood when each year feels more dire. Experts call these feelings desperate climate anxiety, with symptoms including panic attacks, insomnia, obsessive thoughts, and grief.

“Just seeing the effects of the climate crisis in real time is even scarier,” said Bilal.

Many people seek therapy, and a group of experts has emerged to help people deal with their fear of the environment.

Others turn their worries into action. Across the country, young people have campaigned to urge elected leaders to confront the climate crisis and make it part of their platforms. They have organized mass protests and launched executive campaigns in support of environmentally friendly policies.

At the age of 15, Bilal became involved with climate activism and quickly became an advocate in his community, joining the national organization Defenders of the Earth and later becoming a leader. Director of Youth Climate Strike Los Angeles.

Bilal says organizing and finding a community of young climate activists has been an “astronomical” help to his psyche. This year, Bilal interrupted a Los Angeles mayoral debate in which he criticized the candidates for the lack of clear climate policy proposals in their campaign platforms. He said local youth climate activists are taking part in many local elections, driven by a sense of urgency that the crisis is worsening because of policy failures.

“For a long time, it has been sold to us as a future problem, and something we have to deal with in 2040, 2050,” he said.

A study published in the Lancet in December surveyed 10,000 people from 10 countries between the ages of 16 and 25 and found that 59% of respondents said they felt very or extremely worried about their health. Climate Change; 84% have at least moderate anxiety. Researchers from the US, UK and Finland also found that young people said they felt betrayed and failed by their country’s government.

The researchers found: “Anxiety appears to be greater when young people believe that the government response is inadequate, leading us to argue that governments cannot mitigate it. adequately prevent or mitigate climate change that is contributing to psychological distress, moral vulnerability and injustice. . “Climate anxiety may not be a mental illness, but the reality of climate change, coupled with government failure to act, are chronic, long-term and potentially life-threatening stressors. inevitable possibility.”

Britt Wray, a postdoctoral fellow in human and planetary health at Stanford University who co-wrote the study, said the “really harmful psychological effects” on people feel helpless when Elected leaders are not addressing the climate crisis.

“Young people often feel like adults have left the building on this issue, and are relatively belittled and ignored in terms of how uncomfortable they feel about it,” Wray said.

Lauren Traitz, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in the growing field of helping clients suffering from ecological disasters.

“Knowing it’s a collective issue, knowing we can’t hold these things alone,” says Traitz.

She encourages clients to find restorative work, like gardening or growing food in their own community garden or yard. Something as simple as putting a foot or hand in the dirt can also help individuals reconnect with the world.

Andra Brosh, a certified clinical psychologist and eco-therapist in Pasadena, says clients will fall into a state of anxiety and depression without understanding where it’s coming from, and with one line of sentences. asked, she knew it could be rooted in concern about environmental damage.

“It’s kind of like a wave of relief to some extent and also an opportunity to go deeper into the healing process,” Brosh says.

Niko, a 31-year-old resident of Silver Lake, said he started therapy in 2020, feeling stressed by the situation with COVID-19. Being overweight makes him feel more vulnerable to coronavirus, he said.

As he shared his fears and frustrations about the pandemic with his therapist via Zoom, he also began venting about the climate crisis. Niko, who doesn’t want to use his last name, said he talked about watching news segments about climate change and have feelings of despair and anger. When calling Uber, he says, he cancels it unless it’s an electric or eco-friendly vehicle.

Niko says the sessions have given him a sense of hope.

“He pointed out that it doesn’t always have to be negative. I said.

Niko said he is reminded of how lawmakers are pushing for a zero-carbon future, and that young people, like environmental activist Greta Thunberg, support change. Instead of watching the news about the pending disaster, he said, he read about how other countries are successfully moving ahead with environmental activism.

“It gives me hope that one day we can move in that direction,” he said.

For some young people, the only solution is to rise up on their own.

Katerina Gaines, 17, has spent part of her summer traveling with other teens and young adults to Sacramento campaigning in support of a state bill to divest home employee retirement funds. water from fossil fuel companies.

As a sophomore in high school, Katerina began to worry that the Bay Area she grew up knowing would one day become unrecognizable, ravaged by wildfires and transformed by domestication. . She started participating in climate protests, where she felt energized and turned her fear for the future into advocacy work. She participated in Youth vs. Apocalypse, an Oakland-based youth-led climate justice organization, provides educational presentations in Bay Area schools.

In this year’s legislative session, the organization joined other climate justice groups in support of Senate Bill 1173, which would divest more than $11 billion worth of state retirement plans in the coming year. fossil fuel companies by 2030.

But lawmakers ultimately failed to move it forward.

Despite knowing the bill was unsuccessful, youth climate activists gathered in Sacramento in June to protest. They held a protest inside the Capitol, and they painted their hands red to signify “blood” on the hands of elected leaders, Katerina said.

“When politicians don’t support ambitious climate legislation, it literally feels like they’re saying, ‘We don’t care about your future, we don’t care about the planet. .’ And that’s the incredible anxiety it causes,” she said.

Jesús Ramón Villalba Gastélum co-founded the Youth Climate Shock chapter in Los Angeles when he was 16 years old, based in part on the climate change that caused his family, who had to flee Sinaloa, Mexico, for years. before, when endless drought ravaged their crops. He fears similar conditions are waning in California.

Now 19, he works full-time helping farmers while consulting Bilal and other youth organizers in an effort to convince lawmakers to endorse the friendly law. with the environment. But during the pandemic, he said, he felt exhausted by the cause and its many losses. The climate and government inaction, coupled with the rising cost of living and undocumented America, have created a perfect storm of anxiety. But he must continue.

“We just know they won’t do anything if we don’t push them,” he said. “It’s a never-ending struggle.”

Hannah Estrada, education and organization coordinator for Youth vs. Apocalypse, said worsening climate conditions are affecting vulnerable populations and her own future.

Growing up in San Francisco, 19-year-old Estrada said she has come to understand how residents in low-income Black and Latino communities face racial discrimination in the environment, living in areas that suffer heavy pollution and lack of necessary infrastructure to prepare for natural disasters. She fears this will only get worse with climate change.

“It’s hard to know what your future will look like when there are wildfires and we’re experiencing more droughts,” she said.

In response, Estrada rearranges and focuses on school.

She is attending San Jose State University and intends to pursue a law degree. Sometimes, she says, she just needs to “hope for the best.”

“My life will either be normal or disrupted by climate change,” she said. “Anyway, I should go to college.” How young Californians are dealing with climate anxiety

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