14 February 2024

Does climate change affect young people’s mental health?

In Germany, many studies suggest a striking “yes”.

A recent ADVANCE report from Mannheim revealed that a relevant proportion of young Germans shows symptoms of climate change distress.

Woman with red scarf holding a megaphone

Young people who are very aware that they are the ones who will have to live through the consequences of climate change are likely to experience high amounts of distress.

Henrik Wasmus, CIMH researcher.

Evidence indicated that about 65% of young people experienced negative emotions due to climate change, with 26% noting that environmental concerns reduced their happiness and led to sleep issues.

“There are varying negative emotions in which climate related mental health problems manifest in young people. These can include feelings of grief, anxiety, guilt and anger. Young people absorb a lot of information about climate change through formal and social media, which can be very overwhelming,” explains Leonie Fleck, a senior researcher at the Central Institute of Mental Health (CIMH).

This emotional burden is further compounded by a sense of political neglect with young people perceiving a lack of concern for their future from politicians who prioritize the preferences of more established, influential voter bases.

“They can feel like politicians do not care about younger generations because they do not want to lose popularity in other, more influential voters,” she added.

Emotional strain within young climate activists 

Some climate activists are burdened with frustration and anger over political inertia, generational conflicts over climate change discussions within families, and often find themselves isolated due to a lack of support, particularly from those in positions of greater power. 

Every single year of my life will be shaped by this (climate) crisis, but I find it equally terrifying knowing that I don't really have a choice here because there's really one thing I cannot run away from and that's my own future.

Luisa Neubauer, one of the main organisers of Fridays for Future movement in Germany

In this 2021 interview, Neubauer added that this triggers loneliness and helplessness among youth because of the inaction despite the existing knowledge on the threats of climate change.

In addition to this burden, the CIMH team identified an existing form of stigma related to climate change activists: “some do not want to talk too much about climate related anxiety, depression, or stress, because they are afraid of no longer being perceived as an active and competent political figure,” writes the team in their report.

This stigma adds to the mental burden they carry which can result to reluctance to seek help or treatment. This stigma was also observed among people affected by extreme weather events.

People affected by extreme weather events

In Germany, recent studies indicate that 5–6% of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases in children and adolescents stem from enduring extreme weather events (EWE). Those who have lived through such incidents face the immediate and traumatic repercussions of climate change. This includes life-threatening situations, personal losses, and the breakdown of community ties due to forced relocations. 

Researchers point out that personal experiences with weather-related events offer a crucial pathway to understanding and engaging with climate change. These first-hand experiences can ground a person's perception of climate change, making the risk more tangible and relatable.

However, there is a noted empathy gap. The CIMH team observed that individuals not affected by these events tend to underplay the severity of extreme weather impacts on mental health, particularly as time passes since the incidents.

“A practitioner working in an EWE affected area told us that often, those who are severely affected feel like those around them convey messages like: You have grieved enough. You have to move on already,” says Simon Hammes, senior researcher at CIMH, sharing one of their conversations with their society advisory group. 

This absence of empathy exacerbates the long-term mental health struggles that individuals face as a result of these events.

What can be done to address youth's climate distress

Climate change related distress concerns not only specific subgroups such as climate activists or those directly affected by an extreme whether event. The ADVANCE team's investigation also pinpointed other groups that are most susceptible to these psychological strains.

“It is an experience shared by many young people from the general population. Young people who are very aware that they are the ones who will have to live through the consequences of climate change are likely to experience high amounts of distress – especially if they do not have the necessary tools to constructively deal with their worries or feelings of powerlessness,” says Wasmus.

Recognizing that climate distress is a rather normal reaction to the threat of climate change, the team aims to look into comprehensive tools and strategies that address both personal coping and the wider societal impact. 

"I hope we find a way to provide young people with strategies to better manage overwhelming emotions and find ways to meaningfully engage themselves while still acknowledging in our work that this is not an individual problem, but a societal and political one," Fleck adds, highlighting the multifaceted approach needed to address this pressing issue. 

Stay updated about this ADVANCE research on climate change and youth mental health:


Joyce Anne Quinto
Project and Communications Manager

EU EmblemThe ADVANCE project has received funding from the EU Horizon Programme under Grant Agreement No. 101080323. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Health and Digital Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.


More stories