Cecilia Lee

Yale and Suffolk University faculty jointly conducted a study on climate change-related anxiety and depression in college students, as well as how collective action may help prevent these disorders. 

Climate change anxiety is often overlooked in discussions on climate change, as studies and dialogue often focus on the physical effects. The Yale and Suffolk University study found that climate change anxiety is semi-independent from generalized anxiety, and in some cases can lead to depressive symptoms. Researchers concluded that students with climate change anxiety that participated in collective activism tended to have significantly less depressive symptoms.

“Younger people are anxious about climate change and that is not something we should trivialize,” said Sarah Lowe, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health and a senior author of the study. “It is not that the younger generation is weak or overly sensitive, it’s a real threat that is broadly affecting younger people… And in some circumstances, [this anxiety] can be debilitating,” 

According to Kai Chen, director of research, climate change and health at the Yale School of Public Health, there has been significant research on the physical consequences of climate change, but less so on the mental effects. 

When people talk about climate change and its impact on health, Chen explained, they often discuss outcomes relating to physical health. 

“But…in the past few years, there has been emerging evidence on the health impacts of climate change on the mental health side,” Chen said.  

In this study, the researchers set out to investigate two main questions: Is there a relationship between climate change anxiety and generalized anxiety and depressive disorder symptoms, and how does engaging in climate change activism affect this stress.

“Broadly we are defining [climate change anxiety] as a range of responses to climate change including cognitive, behavioral, and emotional responses related to worries about climate change,” said Sarah Shwartz, professor of psychology at Suffolk University and first author of the study. “We shouldn’t be looking at [climate change anxiety] like a manifestation of generalized anxiety disorder.”

Some scholars believe that individuals who are already anxious are more likely to suffer from heightened anxiety about climate change. But after surveying Yale and Suffolk University students, the research team found that climate change anxiety is indeed related to generalized anxiety, but the relationship is not one-to-one — the existence of one does not imply the presence of the other, explained Lowe.

Laelia Benoit, research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine and an author on this study, explained one reason why this may be the case. 

“Climate change anxiety is a societal problem, it’s not an individual problem,” Benoit said. “It’s because our society is denying and ignoring climate change and not taking enough action, that individuals start feeling mental distress.”

Lowe explained that this study also found that only some people who are anxious about climate change display depressive symptoms as a result. People who fall into this category often do not take part in collective activism. 

Rather, these individuals often perform individual actions or do nothing at all. Therefore, the research found that collective action — such as being a member of an environmental organization, going to events or protests, working with others to send letters to policy makers, taking on leadership roles, etc. — can work as a buffer to help prevent depressive symptoms as a result of climate change anxiety. 

The qualitative portion of the study revealed that students who are experiencing the most mental distress as a result of climate change anxiety feel a loss of sense of purpose and meaning, which is an important part of emerging adulthood, explained Shwartz. 

“There was a sense among some…of our participants, about the meaningless of all of the milestones [that come with young adulthood],” Shwartz said. She quoted study participants, who said, “Why should I get an education if I don’t know what my future would be” and “I always thought I wanted to have kids, but maybe I don’t because of climate change.”

Benoit, who led the qualitative component of the study, provided some insight as to why those expressing depressive symptoms are less likely to perform collective activism. 

“[Students] were feeling kind of paralyzed, they would say, ‘actually I don’t do anything,’ or ‘I just recycle’… or ‘I’ll say something on the internet but I won’t change my lifestyle,’ so I think the contradiction, the paradox, was something that was associated to their mental distress,” Benoit said. 

While Lowe, Schwartz and Benoit all said that collective activism can work as a buffer for depressive symptoms, they all agreed that individual actions are just as important to combating climate change.

The study’s results, Lowe said, provides evidence that collective activism could potentially be used as a form of treatment. 

According to Lowe, “[climate change] anxiety in some contexts can be really adaptive, in that it can lead people to take action to fix the problems in their lives and in the world.” 

In February 2022, the global average temperature was about 0.2 degrees Celsius higher than the 1991-2020 average for February, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service.