Adolescents report being engaged and emotionally affected by current environmental issues

Thompson, R. ., Fisher, H. L., Dewa, L. H., Hussain, T. ., Kabba, Z. ., & Toledano, M. B. (2022). Adolescents’ thoughts and feelings about the local and global environment: A qualitative interview study. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 27, 4-13.

The impact of climate change can be experienced directly or indirectly and can relate to both physical and mental health. The mental health impacts have been less well-researched than the physical health impacts, yet some evidence suggests that they can be equally devastating. While the involvement of youth in environmental issues has increased recently, little is known about the impact of climate change awareness (indirect exposure) on their mental health and wellbeing. This study addressed this issue by exploring adolescents' thoughts and feelings about current environmental issues.

A team of researchers and adolescents (age 14-18) worked together throughout the entire project. Initially, a Young People's Advisory Group of twelve adolescents participated in a three-hour in-person workshop to design the study. Semi-structured interviews, varying in length from 16 to 36 minutes, were then conducted with 15 adolescents from across the United Kingdom. Two of the adolescent co-researchers were involved in analyzing and interpreting the results of the interviews. Topics addressed during the interviews included (1) pollution and the interviewee's local environment, (2) the environment more broadly and its future, (3) engagement, influences, and information related to environmental issues, and (4) responsibility and power to influence the environment.

The interviewees identified both harmful and positive influences in their local environment. They described the harmful influences – which included air pollution and noise – as having a negative impact on health, mortality, and wellbeing. They described positive influences – which included greenspace, nature, and fresh air – as helpful to their wellbeing. While most interviewees reported feeling disempowered to influence environmental problems, they tended to be engaged with environmental concerns and felt that their efforts were beneficial for their own wellbeing. Interviewee responses indicated an appreciation of the healing aspects of nature. Their expectations about the future of the environment were largely negative. According to the interviewees, their main influences and sources of information were social media (73.3%), the news (40.0%), friends and family (93.3%), and school (66.7%). Many of them expressed a mistrust of the media and indicated that exposure to the media and news increased their level of stress.

The findings of this study are consistent with other research showing that while youth tend to be highly engaged in environmental issues, they are also experiencing fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness regarding the state of the environment. Also consistent with other research is the finding that the benefits of taking action apply to both the environment and mental health. Still needed, however, is further research “to quantify the extent to which environmental issues affect young people's mental health and identify factors that could prevent or alleviate distress.”

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