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A feeling of ‘climate change anxiety’

In new Oregon Health Authority report, youth shared stories of mental health anguish over climate change
Saraya Lumbreras, a 16-year-old Crater High School student, visits an area burned in the Almeda fire Thursday at Lynn Newbry Park in Talent. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Saraya Lumbreras, a 16-year-old Crater High School student, visits an area burned in the Almeda fire Thursday at Lynn Newbry Park in Talent. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

During a recent summer afternoon in Talent, Crater High School student Saraya Lumbreras walked the Bear Creek Greenway through Lynn Newbry Park, surrounded by charred trees, which she stopped to touch.

The tranquility of her surroundings were in contrast to what has weighed heavily on Lumbreras’ mind: climate change.

“This wasn’t my generation; we didn’t do this, but we’re being left with the result,” she said.

That very idea is part of what led the 17-year-old to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

“The anxiety and depression can come from family problems and things, but then I have separate anxieties from the climate crisis,” said Lumbreras, who works for the Phoenix-based nonprofit Rogue Climate. “I’ve taken a break from the climate activism that I do, due to anxiety and depression.”

Sometimes, Lumbreras said, the work she does helps her feel a “sense of purpose and community.”

Her comments come after the release of an Oregon Health Authority study in which she participated. “Climate Change and Youth Mental Health” examines the correlation between global warming and how young people throughout the state are responding to it on an emotional level. The study grew out of an executive order from Gov. Kate Brown, who wrote in the report’s forward that such a study was needed to address a “broader youth mental health crisis.”

“Heat domes, dry wells, wildfires and hazardous smoke — the consequences of these events pose not only imminent threats to physical health, but immediate and long-lasting impacts to our mental health,” Brown stated. “Facing the threat and uncertainties of climate change can be daunting for all of us. For youth who see their future lives and well-being at stake, the burden and weight of climate change can seem both overwhelming and unfair.”

In many ways, the report is meant to help “build resilience among our youth and help them navigate these challenging and uncertain times,” Brown said.

At the same time, the governor has seen in youth who participated in the study that same resilience “to make change” and help prevent global warming.

The OHA study was conducted via interviews with numerous professionals, as well as child focus groups and “story circles.” To facilitate these, OHA reached out to numerous academic and community organizations, including Rogue Climate and The Hearth, based in Ashland.

Climate change impact on mental health

Julie Sifuentes, lead author of the study, at one time managed OHA’s climate and health program. She emphasized she is not a mental health expert, but she heavily researched the issue to make the report possible. Citing U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy’s 2021 report “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” she said climate change is part of the reason young people are facing increasing mental health challenges.

“This is a very emerging issue; there’s only one really robust study looking at climate change’s impact on youth mental health,” Sifuentes said. “I don’t know what conclusive statement we can make yet on the degree of harm. I think what we can say is that — based on studies that have been done, and what we hear in this study — is that (climate change) is a source of significant distress for many youth. This is a justifiable response to what youth are seeing and experiencing.”

The OHA study said research shows extreme weather events, “stressors” from the climate, such as food insecurity, and “climate anxiety” can impact a person’s mental health.

When it comes to climate change, study participants reported a range of emotions they felt, from “frustration” about the subject to hopelessness and despair, the report said.

In addition to the kinds of feelings that might intrude on their day-to-day lives, the youth reported some emotions that stem from “feeling dismissed by adults,” “angry that not enough is being done to protect their future” and the belief that “climate change (is) closely linked with systematic racism and oppression,” according to the report.

Sifuentes said she hopes youth read every page of it. “I hope that, in doing so, they feel less alone.”

Sifuentes added that parents could also find the information in the report helpful, along with mental health professionals, educators, and government entities in the natural resource sector, who could find ways to make youth part of official decision-making processes.

Lumbreras’ story

In fall 2020, she got involved with Rogue Climate and started down the road of working to stop climate change.

“After the fires, I definitely started to realize it was starting to impact my life physically,” Lumbreras said. “So I got involved with Rogue Climate, interned with them and did my activism work.”

Activism made her happy, but there were times when Lumbreras could feel the weight of climate change on her everyday life.

“I had a few weeks that were not great, and I was in my room a lot,” she said.

“The anxiety in knowing that our world is crippling and we have to fix it, because it’s our future, that’s the anxiety surrounding it,” Lumbreras said. “Then, there’s the depression aspect of it ... I know that these problems can mess with you and can cause mental health decline, especially when you are already battling mental illness.”

Lumbreras sought counseling and is on anti-anxiety medication. She told a focus group facilitated by Rogue Climate that she envies people who don’t know a lot about the climate crisis.

“I guess I just envy ignorance,” Lumbreras said. “I can’t just sit back and not do anything because of the anxiety.”

Sometimes Lumbreras questions that envy when her friends seem nonchalant about the issue.

“Some of my friends are just like, ‘Yeah, but I can’t really do anything about it, so I don’t,’” Lumbreras said.

Lumbreras said she was pleased OHA made it possible for a focus group at Rogue Climate to look at the issue of mental health and climate change.

“It was really relieving to hear other people’s stories and know that it’s not just me experiencing this anxiety and anger with the climate crisis,” she said.

Sifuentes did not attend the listening session, but she was able to meet with youth during a webinar to share the OHA team’s preliminary findings and later met Lumbreras during a radio interview

Through those experiences, Sifuentes feels an abundance of optimism about Oregon’s youth.

“I have just been incredibly inspired and moved,” she said. “I guess I feel, myself, more committed to figuring out how we can work with youth in addressing the climate crisis.”

Sifuentes admitted her mental health also is impacted by climate change. But after hearing how youth are responding to it, she realizes, “It feels like a heavier burden ... on youth than it does on people of older generations.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.