Fires, heat waves cause “climate stress” in youth

PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) – Oregon health officials say the effects of climate change, including more devastating fires, heat waves, drought and poor air quality, are fueling “climate stress”.

Their findings were published in a report highlighting young people’s feelings of sadness, anger and frustration about the perceived inaction of adults and government.

In a briefing Tuesday by the Oregon Health Authority, three young people talked about how climate change has affected their mental health.

High school student Mira Saturen expressed the horror she felt when the Almeda fire swept through the area near her hometown of Ashland in southwestern Oregon in September 2020. The fire destroyed more than 2,500 homes.

“It was a terrible and stressful two days as details of the fire went in,” said the 16-year-old. Her fears were heightened by the fact that her father worked in the fire department. “He was out to fight the fire for over 36 hours, which was very scary for me.”

Governor Kate Brown in March 2020 asked the OHA to study the effects of climate change on the mental health of young people. In its report, the agency says its research was “designed to focus on the voices of young people, especially tribal youth and colored youth in Oregon.”

The report emphasizes that marginalized communities are more likely to experience adverse health effects from climate change and notes that “emerging research shows similar disproportionate mental health burdens”.

Te Maia Wiki, another high school student in Asland, raised the issue.

“For me, it is important to mention that I am a native,” he said. The 16-year-old’s mother is Yurok, a native of Northern California along the Pacific coast and the Klamath River.

“In my mother’s generation, when she was growing up, she went to traditional ceremonies and smoked salmon that was traditionally fished by our people in our river that we fished from time immemorial,” Wiki said. “In my life, eating this fish, seeing this smoked salmon at our ceremonies, is rare. This is a complete spiritual, emotional and physical embodiment of how I am stressed by it and how it affects me. “

OHA has partnered with the University of Oregon University Suicide Prevention Laboratory to review the literature, conduct focus groups with young people, and interview public health, mental health, and education professionals. The interviews took place shortly after the extreme heat wave that hit parts of Oregon in the summer of 2021.

Focusing on Oregon, the report highlights broader mental health concerns among young people in the United States, amid rising rates of depression and suicide nationwide.

Climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have further exacerbated an already worrying mental health crisis of young people. The number of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or despair increased by 40% from 2009 to 2019, according to a General Surgery Advice released in December. Citing national surveys, the same consultancy noted that suicide rates among young people aged 10-24 increased by 57% between 2007 and 2018.

Despite the crisis, study participants also expressed a sense of resilience.

“One of the biggest, bittersweet conclusions from our focus group is that we are not alone in this,” 23-year-old Mecca Donovan told a news conference on Tuesday. He said that for young people with “all these busy thoughts”, having more opportunities to talk could help their mental health.

Lead author Julie Early Sifuentes, with the OHA Climate and Health Program, said she hoped the study “creates conversations in families, schools, communities and updates policy decisions.”


Claire Rush is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that puts reporters in local newsrooms to cover hidden issues.

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