For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

The Climate Emergency Is Affecting Adolescent Mental Health

A group of young people at a climate rally holding a sign that says "I want my future back"

February 21, 2024

There is nothing natural about the increased severity of disasters that are wreaking havoc across the globe. Human-induced global warming has led to severe droughts and wildfires, warmer water bodies thus more evaporation and larger quantities of water vapor in the atmosphere, which is fueling hurricanes, severe storms and torrential rain.

A newly published paper by faculty and students at the Dornsife School of Public Health, and Urban Health Collaborative found that climate-related disasters were associated with mental distress among adolescents living in urban school districts across the U.S..

Youth have voiced anger and despair as they watch adults doing too little to prevent devastation from climate disruption. Yet very little research has been done on mental health consequences of the climate crisis and no large-scale studies have examined exposure to a range of climate disasters and adolescent psychological distress.

To fill this gap, the researchers linked over 38000 high school student surveys to federally declared climate-related disasters that occurred between 2009 and 2019 in twenty-two of the largest urban school districts in the U.S.. Most students in the sample were Latino or Black race/ethnicity and nearly all of the school districts had poverty rates that exceeded the U.S. average.

The researchers were surprised to find how common climate-related disasters were – included catastrophic flooding, wildfires, severe storms, hurricanes and tornedos. For example, over a 5-year period, on average students were exposed to at least 2 federally declared disasters, and for each event, the emergency often extended for weeks.

Compared to other adolescents, those who lived under a disaster declaration for a very long period (at least 60 days in the past 5 years) had 20% higher odds of mental distress. This relationship roughly followed a dose-response pattern with stronger effects for recent exposure and weaker results for exposure that occurred many years ago. Their results were robust to controlling for many confounding factors such as age, gender, family socio-economic status, and school district poverty and region.

Studies like this one demonstrate the importance of enhanced planning and preparedness for a wide range of negative health outcomes from a warming planet -- including worsening mental health -- particularly in lower wealth and predominantly Black and Brown communities like those featured in this article. Young climate justice leaders and activists have been calling for a radical re-envisioning of business-as-usual away from fossil fuels; and for shifting priorities toward the needs of lower wealth communities and the global south -- who have the lowest carbon footprint yet are already the most affected by the climate crisis.

Learn more about the Drexel Climate Change and Urban Health Research Center, and the Drexel Urban Health Collaborative (@DrexelUHC) on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter.

Auchincloss AH, Ruggiero DA, Donnelly MT, Chernak ED and Kephart JL. Adolescent mental distress in the wake of climate disasters. Preventive Medicine Reports. 2024.