Climate change hurting mental health of Oregon's youth – Statesman Journal


Increasing extreme weather events and increased awareness of the negative impacts of climate change are leading to feelings of hopelessness, despair, anxiety and frustration among the state’s young people, a new report from the Oregon Health Authority says.
The report, “Climate Change and Youth Mental Health in Oregon,” also found that youth feel dismissed by adults, and are angry that not enough is being done to protect their future.
OHA prepared the report as part of Gov. Kate Brown’s March 2020 executive order directing multiple state agencies to take actions to reduce and regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
“Adults don’t always understand the fear that young people have about our futures,” Ukiah Halloran-Steiner, a 17-year-old who lives near McMinnville, told the Statesman Journal. “I know the climate crisis is scary and is impacting my own mental health and how I perceive the world.”
Halloran-Steiner was kayaking on the Rogue River with her family when smoke from the 2020 Labor Day fires started rolling in.
“It was hard to breathe. There were bats flying in the middle of the day. We didn’t know what was going on,” she said.
The family raced home to protect their farm and animals.
“That was a really scary experience for me,” she said. “I realized this climate change thing is not that far away. It’s happening now.”
The study includes a literature review, information from youth focus groups and story circles, and interviews with experts.
“As climate effects get worse, youth are becoming very worried about their future and the future of their younger siblings,” said the report’s lead author, Julie Early Sifuentes, who works with OHA’s Climate and Health Program.
Saraya Lumbreras, now 17, was working at Rogue Valley Manor as the 2020 Almeda Fire approached Medford.
“We ended up having to evacuate everyone because it was coming towards us,” Lumbreras said. “A lot of the folks were older and didn’t understand what was happening, didn’t want to leave. I ended up helping until I had to leave myself, because my family was leaving.”
Her house was spared, but most of her classmates lost their homes. Now, she said, she dreads fire season.
“It’s always been smoky here in the summers. The smell of it is really scary now. The night before the fire, the wind was howling. The wind always startles me now,” she said.
The study also found that youths recognize that vulnerability to climate change is closely linked with systemic racism and structural oppression, and that both need to be simultaneously addressed, its authors said.
Its authors recommend that educators, environment and mental health professionals and decision makers:
For Halloran-Steiner, the 2020 wildfires were a life-changing event. She became involved with Sunrise PDX, a Portland group of young people working to stop climate change, and then founded Sunrise Rural Oregon.
“I have this sense of responsibility that I need to do what I can to protect the planet and future generations,” she said.
Halloran-Steiner said she doesn’t think the study results are surprising, but hopes it will help people think harder about the decisions they make.
“This report isn’t going to do anything unless the people who read it, and people in positions of power, take action,” she said.
Tracy Loew is a reporter at the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at tloew@statesmanjournal.com, 503-399-6779 or on Twitter at @Tracy_Loew.

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