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Firsthand Experience of Climate Change Disasters Is Stressing Teens
  • Posted February 27, 2024

Firsthand Experience of Climate Change Disasters Is Stressing Teens

Weather disasters driven by climate change are stressing out U.S. teenagers, a new study warns.

Teens with the most firsthand experience of events like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, droughts and wildfires were more likely to show signs of mental distress than peers who hadn't been confronted with the effects of climate change, researchers report.

“We know that climate change has and will have catastrophic impacts across the globe, but we were alarmed to find that climate-related disasters already were affecting so many teens in the U.S.,” said lead researcher Amy Auchincloss, an associate professor of epidemiology in Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health in Philadelphia. 

“For example, within the past two years, many school districts in our study were subject to climate disasters for over 20 days,” Auchincloss added in a university news release.

Researchers said this was the first large-scale attempt to look at the mental health of adolescents following multiple disaster events.

For their study, researchers drew on federal survey data for more than 38,600 high school students from 22 public school districts in 14 states. The largest share of the districts were located in the southern and western regions of the country.

The districts had been affected by 83 federally declared climate disasters within the past 10 years, researchers said. These included 24 hurricanes, 23 severe storms, 20 wildfires, 10 floods, four snowstorms, three severe ice storms and one tornado.

The research team used federal survey questions on feelings of sadness or hopelessness and short sleep duration to estimate mental distress. Those two factors have been strongly linked to mental health problems among teenagers, researchers said.

The quarter of teens who'd experienced the highest number of days in a climate disaster had 20% higher odds of mental distress than peers who'd experience few or no disaster events, results show.

“We found the strongest effects on mental distress in the two years immediately following a climate disaster -- with the effect gradually weakening 5 to 10 years after the disaster,” said researcher Josiah Kephart, an assistant professor at Drexel's Dornsife School of Public Health.

The new study was published recently in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.

Future research should focus on how to prepare for and effectively treat these disaster-driven effects on the mental health of teens, the team concluded.

Already, roughly half of teens have experienced a mental health disorder in their lifetimes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Resources for the youth mental health crisis already have difficulty meeting demand, and demand will increase as disasters increase,” said researcher Dr. Esther Chernak, director of the Drexel University Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication.

“The current study is evidence that clinicians, policymakers, parents and many others with a stake in youth mental health can point to when advocating for increasing adolescent-specific mental health resources – particularly in lower-income communities who will be hit hardest by disasters,” Chernak added.

More information

MIT has more on climate change.

SOURCE: Drexel University, news release, Feb. 22, 2024

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