Katie Hayes, MD Speaking Notes for Testimony
Schools for Climate Action Advocacy Summit; US Capital Visitors’ Center
I really want to take this opportunity to thank Izzy for sharing her personal story. Experiences, like what Izzy describes, are becoming the new normal. As a researcher studying climate change and mental health, I can tell you that there are a whole host of complicated mental health outcomes related to climate change. As Izzy notes, there can be these complicated emotions of feeling a thrilling sense of aliveness as people navigate safety and security during an extreme event and then as basic needs are met, the mental health needs become harder to navigate. It is important to consider that climate change impacts can have latent effects. For many who have been exposed to a specific climate event, like a flood or a hurricane, their immediate needs may be to secure shelter, food, water, and security. Once a sense of safety and security has been established, needs may be focused on rebuilding, after rebuilding is underway, people may start to tend to their mental health needs.
The research on climate change and mental health reveals that these needs can be things like: PTSD after experiencing the devastating effects of floods or hurricanes; or anxiety every time it rains or every time the sky clouds with smoke; or grief, anxiety, and hopelessness as we bear witness to extreme event after extreme event that devastates our communities at an alarming rate. We know that climate change loads the dice, so to speak, making these extreme events more frequent, complex, and intense.
While these mental health outcomes that I mentioned can affect us all, these outcomes disproportionately affect our youth. Children tend to be at greater risk to the mental health effects of climate change because they are more dependent on others for the support of their health wellbeing. Research suggests that children are more at risk to long-term trauma including PTSD. For example, research conducted in my home country of Canada reveals the devastating mental health outcomes on youth related to the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires. Researches find that mental health symptoms and substance addiction are significantly higher for youth who experienced the wildfires compared to controls in a neighbouring community. Of the more than 3252 youth participants in this study, researchers found significant increases depression, suicidal thinking, and increased tobacco use among youth from Fort McMurray.
Further, feelings of impending doom also appear to be prevalent amongst children. A survey of Australian children, for example, noted that one in four children were so concerned about the global threat of climate change that they believed the world would end before they reached adulthood. It’s important to note as well, that this study was conducted over 10 years ago. Increasingly our children and youth are feeling the weight of climate change on their shoulders. Like for example Zaayne Cowie a 9 year old climate activist from New York who wrote a compelling children’s book for adults called: ‘Goodbye Earth’ that calls out all of us adults who have been cripplingly inactive on addressing climate change.
Our youth have lived their whole lives hearing about the dire consequences of climate change and, increasingly, they are directly exposed to climate hazards like floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and heat waves. These experiences can spark fear, anxiety, distress, and trauma.
Our youth are also watching many of the adults in this world remain silent and in a state of inaction on the issue of climate change. They see that nothing is being done to protect the earth that they will inherit, they see nothing that is being done to protect their homes and livelihoods from the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires, floods, and hurricanes, they see that nothing is being done to protect them. They are being kept indoors during heat waves and when the air is thick with wildfire smoke; we are preventing our kids from being kids and we are stumbling along with our business as usual approach that rests on hopes for a better future for our youth. Hope isn’t working and the youth are here today to demand action. In the words of a wonderful, young leader, Greta Thunberg, the youth don’t want our hope, they want us to act. It is our time to listen to the wise voices of our youth.