Mental health challenges are rising alongside temperatures. Research suggests that taking action can help.

By Fatima Gutierrez, OtherWords

I remember being a young girl, no more than seven, and older people telling me: “Sorry we destroyed the planet. Now it’s your responsibility to fix it.” At such a young age, I didn’t understand what those words meant. But it wouldn’t be the last time I heard them.

climate is changing why aren't we

I live in New Mexico. In my 22 years, I’ve seen our winters becoming less and less white, each summer getting hotter, and the water slowly disappearing from the great Rio Grande. It’s a story my peers in other states could tell just as well.

The continuous occurrence of these events — and the lack of meaningful action by our representatives to stop them — have been a source of constant stress. I’ve spent years of my young life battling intense feelings of uneasiness, dread, and fear — all of which would become exaggerated whenever I read about a natural disaster or an oil spill.

For many years I felt alone with these feelings. But then I learned that they had a name: “climate anxiety.”

It turns out I’m not alone.

In one large study of 10,000 children and young people in 10 countries, 45 percent of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively impacted their daily functioning. Another 75 percent found the future frightening — and 83 percent said that they think people have failed to take care of the planet.

A Yale and George Mason report called “Climate Change in the American Mind” said that about one in ten Americans report having experienced anxiety because of global warming for several or more days out of the last two weeks. Almost as many report experiencing symptoms of depression for the same reason.

These feelings are valid. But we can’t let them overpower our desire to see a future in which renewable energy is flourishing and fossil fuel pollution is a thing of the past.

So how do we keep going? By turning climate anxiety into climate action.

And fortunately, there’s promising research in that area, too. A 2022 study published in Current Psychology suggested that collective action could bring a sense of community, connection, and social support.

“Engaging in collective action can have a multitude of benefits including social connectedness with people who share similar goals and values,” study coauthor Sarah Lowe told Yale Sustainability“We also thought that individuals who engaged in collective action — particularly if they saw those actions as having an impact — could have a stronger sense of self-efficacy and hope for the future.”

Proponents of a mental health approach called “ecotherapy” have suggested that developing an environmental identity and engaging in environmental conservation may be another effective approach to treating climate anxiety.

What we’re seeing is a pressing need for people to connect and become active in their communities — for the health of their communities as well as their own mental health. The possibility of hope begins when you can see paths for change, however small, in your own community.

Over the years my own waves of climate anxiety have been eased by watching climate organizations like YUCCA and New Mexico Climate Justice demand just energy transitions in my home state and across the country.

I’ve felt the crippling effects of climate anxiety. But we must be able to use our emotions to fuel positive change. I’ve learned these feelings can help us create communities focused on empowering and motivating each other to stand up to those who disrespect and pollute the earth.

The greatest strength of humanity lies in our ability to come together, support each other, and fight for the future that we and future generations deserve.

Fatima Gutierrez is a Next Leader at the Institute for Policy Studies. This op-ed was distributed by