Who Suffers From Climate Anxiety? Not Exactly Who You Might Think.
They’re often people of color, young, and from the Northeast.
We are living in the Age of the Big Yikes.
Climate change is widely accepted as both real and happening now . Many Americans hear news about global warming at least once a week and though projections aren’t as dire as they once were, they’re still extremely not great. Half of Americans have been “personally affected” by climate change, and of those, 54% say they have experienced a “reduced quality of life due to weather extremes,” a recent survey of 1,000 U.S. adults by Heatmap and Benenson Strategy Group found. Overall, two-thirds of Americans (65%) worry about what climate change will mean for them personally — a common anxiety that the Los Angeles Times has deemed “ a normal response to an abnormal situation .”
A smaller but still substantial subset of Americans — around 15% — further self-identifies as having mental health problems stemming from the effects of climate change, including “anxiety and stress” about current and future events, PTSD, depression, substance abuse, and loneliness and isolation, the Heatmap Climate Poll shows. The distress, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, isn’t strongly determined by education level, income, or even ideology: A full quarter of those who say they have mental health problems due to climate change are Republicans (25%, compared to 31% of Democrats and 34% of independents).
The effects of climate change on mental health have historically been studied with a focus on young people , and it’s true that younger adults in Heatmap’s survey were also the ones more likely to describe mental health problems from climate effects. But what else can we learn about those who suffer mental and emotional ramifications from our changing world?
Climate anxiety skews young.
Unsurprisingly, and consistent with prior research, young adults are overwhelmingly the ones most anxious about climate change. Nearly half of 18-to-34-year-olds who’ve experienced climate change firsthand described having mental health problems as a result — a response that was much smaller in the 65+ population (10%). However, of that small number of people in the 65+ population who have reported suffering mental health problems due to climate change, there was a universal (100%) experience of having “anxiety and stress over future effects of climate change,” Heatmap found. Ninety percent also had anxiety and stress over the current effects.
Among young people who self-reported having mental health issues around climate change, “stress and anxiety” about current (69%) and future (66%) climate events was the most often cited mental health impact. Over half also cited depression (53%) and loneliness and isolation (46%).
Climate anxiety isn’t white.
Despite the “ unbearable whiteness ” of the conversation around climate anxiety, Heatmap’s polling was consistent with earlier surveys that found people of color are more likely to be alarmed about global warming than white people. White Americans were actually the least likely to report having experienced climate change-related mental health problems, at 28%, compared to African-Americans and Hispanics (36% each) and Asian American and Pacific Islanders (33%). Though white Americans reported the highest instances of depression (60% compared to 36% among all people of color), minority groups lead self-reports of anxiety and stress over the present (71% to white Americans’ 64%); anxiety and stress over the future (65% to white Americans’ 61%); and loneliness and isolation (45% to white Americans’ 35%).
That result isn’t as surprising when you look at who has been personally affected by climate change: just 44% of white people say they have been, compared to more than half of African-Americans (55%), one in six Hispanics (60%), and three-quarters of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (75%). Of the people who said climate change caused them mental health problems, the lowest rate (28%) was among white Americans.
Heatmap also asked all the respondents if climate change makes them worried about their children’s future. Though this question included answers from non-parents and people planning never to have children (and thus could be skewed by the fact that white respondents were also the least likely to have children under 18 living at home), 78% of people of color voiced general concerns about the future of their children due to climate change compared to 64% of white Americans.
Particularly of note was that nearly all (94%) of Asian American and Pacific Islanders described themselves as worrying about their children’s future due to climate change, despite having roughly the same number of children living at home as white Americans (34% to white American's 31%). There were also high levels of concern among Hispanics, at 81%, and African-Americans, at 70%, though those respondents were somewhat more likely to be parents or guardians than white Americans.
More mothers than fathers report climate anxiety.
Mothers were significantly more likely to suffer from the mental health effects of climate change (49%) compared to dads (33%).
Fathers, on the other hand — and hilariously — were likely to say they've experienced climate-related property damage (51% to moms’ 39%).
Surprisingly, there’s more climate anxiety in the Northeast.
It might seem intuitive that people living under the wildfire-orange skies of California or on the eroding coastlines of Florida would be the most concerned about climate change, but that certainly isn’t the rule. The Northeastern United States is technically among the “safest” places in the country with regards to meteorological upheavals — just 11% of respondents in the region described themselves as having been “very affected” by climate change. Nevertheless, of the people self-reporting mental health problems related to climate, 40% were in the Northeast compared to 22% in the West.
This is especially notable because while people in the Northeast might have a reputation for being more high strung than other parts of the U.S., the region actually features the lowest levels of general anxiety, behind the Midwest, South, and West, according to
a pre-pandemic U.S. Census Bureau study
. (The Northeast surpassed the Midwest by fall 2020, though that could potentially be attributed to the region being hard-hit by COVID-19).
The higher rate of self-reported mental health problems could be political: the Northeast is the most liberal region in the U.S. , and residents are perhaps more inclined to trust scientific warnings about climate change and/or read news about the severity of the crisis, resulting in higher levels of concern.
It’s revealing to look at specifically what kinds of mental health problems Northeasterners describe, too. Most (82%) who were experiencing mental health problems specified having anxiety and stress from current climate change effects — a rate almost 10 points higher than the next-most-anxious region, the South.
“Depression” was the most commonly cited mental health impact in the West (66%) and Midwest (69%), the
Heatmap poll found. Suburbanites also specifically experienced “anxiety and stress” from current climate change in high numbers, at 74% compared to rural Americans’ 66% and urbanites’ 58%.
Climate-linked mental health problems more broadly occur at the highest rates in rural communities, which are also uniquely vulnerable to weather-related impacts. Among those who said they have mental health problems stemming from climate change, 36% lived in rural locations, compared to 29% in the suburbs and 27% in urban environments.
Anxiety only scratches the surface of the mental health issues that result from climate change, Heatmap also found.
Nearly a third of Americans (30%) who reported experiencing climate change said it resulted in mental health problems. While 63% of that group further specified that meant suffering from anxiety and stress, 49% also reported depression, 22% reported post-traumatic stress disorder, and 18% reported taking to coping mechanisms like substance abuse.
The fourth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program published in 2018,
that these responses are normal and will continue to result from climate disasters going forward. People who experience a flood or the risk of flood, for example, “report higher levels of depression and anxiety, and these impacts can persist several years after the event.” Droughts commonly result in “increased use of alcohol and tobacco.” High temperatures can “lead to an increase in aggressive behaviors, including homicide.” Children displaced by climate-related disasters experience a “heavy burden” on their mental health. Separately, a 2018 study published in
predicted up to 40,000 additional suicides in the United States and Mexico by 2050
due to higher temperatures
What does all this mean?
“Climate anxiety” (sometimes interchangeably called “eco-anxiety”) is not technically classified as a medical condition by the all-powerful DSM-5, the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals in the United States — which makes sense, because “the last thing we want is to pathologize this moral emotion, which stems from an accurate understanding of the severity of our planetary health crisis,” Britt Wray writes in her 2022 book Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis . Many in the medical community agree; as one psychotherapist and researcher told the BBC on the subject in 2019, “I’d kind of wonder why somebody wasn’t feeling anxious.”
Within reason , a certain amount of climate anxiety can be a good thing . (It will perhaps be productive to track climate “worry” in the coming years to see if, or as, it changes as guarded climate optimism grows in popularity). But experiencing climate change can also produce mental health problems that, like physical health problems, need to be anticipated and treated as weather-related crises increase, intensify, and expand. That is particularly true as it pertains to underserved communities, whose mental health struggles already frequently go unrecognized or untreated .
The overriding takeaway, though, is that it is wrong to look at climate change as only a danger to property and physical safety, the two human impacts that dominate headlines. Even if just 15% of Americans who experience climate change personally end up with self-described mental health problems as a result, that would potentially mean almost 18 million Americans will be suffering from the mental effects of climate change by 2050.
As Gary Belkin, the former deputy health commissioner for New York City and founder of the Billion Minds Institute, wrote for Psychiatric News in 2021, “We are all psychologically unprepared to face the accelerating existential crisis of climate and ecological change that will further deepen other destructive fault lines in our society ... We must sound that alarm and put our own house in order.”
The Heatmap Climate Poll of 1,000 American adults was conducted via online panels by Benenson Strategy Group from Feb. 15 to 20, 2023. The survey included interviews with Americans in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.02 percentage points. You can read more about the topline results here .