Photo illustration and interactives by Ali Levens. Photos by Lucian Himes
The climate crisis manifests itself in the form of droughts, fires, floods and other natural disasters — a tornado of destruction that leads to other forms of environmental catastrophes.
Yet, mental health is not usually correlated with the climate crisis, said Lauren Traitz, an associate marriage and family therapist from Angeles Psychology Group who considers herself to be “climate aware.”
As the climate crisis intensifies, Traitz said a sense of impending “doom” and anxiety — particularly among Gen Z and millennials — is worsening. In a time when many young people are trying to plan for their futures, Elsa Weinfeld, senior Psychology major and Sustainability minor, said climate change weighs heavily on major life decisions other generations did not have to deal with.
“It’s like carrying other people’s burdens,” Weinfeld said. “It’s definitely not an easy thing to do, and it’s just part of the nature of being [passionate about] sustainability; it’s carrying these burdens that other people want to push aside.”
With an unpredictable future looming, students said they often reflect on how the Earth reached the state it is in today.
Behind the Story
- Why did you decide to report on this?
- I have always been passionate about mental health, the specific worries and experiences of younger generations. When thinking about climate change, I did not realize what a universal experience it was for Gen Z and millenials, in particular, to base so many of their major life decisions on the future impacts of the climate crisis.
- What did the reporting process look like?
- I read several articles and research about the correlation between the climate crisis and mental health among all generations. My first and longest interview was with a therapist who specializes in climate anxiety, and she gave me so much insight not only into how her Gen Z clients look toward their futures in the face of the climate crisis, but also how millennials like herself do. Going forward, my student interviews showed common themes of changing major life plans and coping with the impending doom of climate change. At the same time, each had unique concerns and struggles. They felt isolated from others even though many had shared experiences. I hope this story allows people to relate to one another and learn from the fears of those who are highly educated on the topic of climate change.
- How did you choose what aspects to focus on?
- I initially decided to ask very broad questions. I wanted to see if there were common themes with what the therapist said and what students said, and once I caught one, I would ask my source to elaborate. That is where the more unique struggles showed through, and I was able to tell individual stories in a cohesive way under the umbrella of resentment, frustration and overwhelmingness. I always knew with this being the final story in the magazine, I had to end on a hopeful note. Although a shorter section of my reporting, I asked each source what they do to make themselves hopeful about their futures, and what actions others could take to contribute to this hope.
The Impact of the Past On the Future
As a millennial and therapist who works with college-aged students, Traitz said she understands the frustration of people who have their entire lives ahead of them but feel as though they lack freedom in their decision-making.
“There’s this feeling of certain choices being really deprived without the future being certain,” Traitz said.
PGM alumna Ivy Moore (’21) studied Journalism at Pepperdine, but she said she also chose to take Sustainability classes. She said these classes and professors provided her with an awareness about the climate crisis she would not have had otherwise, and that impacted the trajectory of her future.
Moore said since taking Sustainability courses, she has made a conscious effort to live an eco-friendly lifestyle — from the companies she works at to choices she makes in her personal life. As she begins to determine where to place her roots, Moore said the effects of climate change play a pivotal role in her thought process.
“I can’t imagine owning property [in California],” Moore said. “I don’t know what the state of California is going to look like in 10 or 20 years.”
With a remote job, Moore said she has the freedom to move anywhere physically, but climate change stripped her of the emotional freedom to be happy in a time she said should be exciting to someone her age.
“Every place has its own set of problems, so now for me, it is picking out the lesser of all evils and what is least scary to me,” Moore said.
At times, Moore said she feels hopeless because it can feel like there is nowhere for her to go and feel relaxed. She said the instability climate change causes makes her feel unstable in other aspects of her life, too.
“I am in my 20s, and people are starting to think about, ‘Am I saving for a home or just saving to make moves throughout my life?’” Moore said.
Junior Political Science major Ethan Barragán said he shares Moore’s worries about settling his family in California. It is not about what he wants for his future anymore, but what he needs to do to preserve his future family’s lives.
“I wanted to live where I grew up and call home,” Barragán said. “However, that can change just due to just weather and knowing that we’re in a drought. So yeah, there’s a whole lot of environmental issues that make me not want to plant my root firmly in Los Angeles especially.”
Moore said it is hard for her to grapple with her resentment toward the generations who did not have to worry about climate change while simultaneously making it worse.
“Sometimes I get really frustrated when I realize so many issues that we’re dealing with are not even our fault,” Moore said. “We have to be like, ‘OK, we have to survive and figure it out.’”
Barragán said he does not see tackling climate change as a choice for Gen Z. He said while past generations left Gen Z in crisis, it would not be fair for Gen Z to leave the future generations with the same, or an even worse, problem.
“It’s a lot of weight to have on your shoulders,” Barragán said. “But I believe someone in our generation has to pick up the slack or it’s basically kicking the can down the line. And I don’t want this to fall along the lines of future generations because at that point it’ll be even more too late.”
Even though climate change impacts his generation greatly, that does not mean it did not impact past generations too, Barragán said. Growing up in Los Angeles, he said his entire family developed asthma from the pollution in the air, and said he now understands that will be hard to escape if he wants to live in any big city.
“Asthma has always been something prevalent in my parents and grandparents lives,” Barragán said. “I know that, after doing some research, that that’s something that is just by living in a large metropolitan area that has really bad air quality.”
Because of his asthma, Barragán said he feels he has to worry more about his health in the face of the climate crisis than others.
“I definitely want to be able to live in a place where I do have fresh air and clean water,” Barragán said. “I want to be able to start a family, to continue to live my life more prosperously and not have to deal with a lot of those things that not everyone deals with in life.”
Along with frustration, fear and pressure, young people also have to deal with loss — loss of control, loss of a sense of peace in nature and loss of a relationship with the environment.
Traitz said these factors can contribute to anxiety. People often do not realize climate change disrupts the human urge to connect with the Earth, which is where the sense of both conscious and subconscious loss stems from.
“We often have developed — even if people aren’t conscious of it — some kind of relationship or sense of belonging to some natural environment,” Traitz said.
Weinfeld said her lack of control over climate change sparks anxiety. When she started to think about having children someday, Weinfeld said those fears escalated even more.
“That’s probably the main reason I went into Sustainability,” Weinfeld said. “I want to feel like I have even the slightest bit of control over the future, and be able to educate myself on what I can do to make sure my kids can live on an Earth that’s able to sustain itself.”
Weinfeld said she has always wanted to be a mom, and as she gets closer to the age where she would want to have children, her mind races with a mix of guilt for potentially contributing to the climate crisis and for the type of world she would bring children into.
“That’s a really scary thought for me, is that the planet is going to look completely different for my kids,” Weinfeld said. “Is it going to be safe? What kind of challenges are they going to have to deal with? That’s something that’s on my heart.”
Being an Advocate
Climate advocacy is when people work to find solutions to the climate crisis and educate those who do not understand the impact of climate change on the world, according to Aspen Institute.
Weinfeld said immersing herself in the climate crisis in school or work overflows into her personal life, as constantly thinking about the human impact on the planet brings a great sense of responsibility onto her shoulders.
“I think being in the Sustainability program is inherently overwhelming,” Weinfeld said. “You are going into class every day, learning about pretty much how people don’t really care about the direction Earth and climate is going. It is a very helpless feeling, and climate anxiety is definitely a real thing.”
After taking Sustainability classes and working at an environmental consulting company, Moore said she can relate to the isolating feeling of being an advocate against climate change.
“[We] see this doom and no one else sees it, and that’s a lot — it’s overwhelming,” Moore said.
Barragán said he interned at Change the Chamber during the spring 2022 academic semester. Change the Chamber is a group of youths who monitor the United States Chamber of Commerce’s actions and advocate for businesses and corporations to be more active in fighting the climate crisis, Barragán said.
In this program, Barragán said he was able to expand knowledge and act on what he learned about in his Political Science classes in a real-world setting. He said one of his most memorable days was when he protested in front of the Supreme Court during the EPA v. West Virginia court case.
“I had a really cool and unique experience,” Barragán said. “I really was able to get into the thick of things in terms of climate, and I feel like as an individual I wanted to, and I still try to do my part and live what I preach.”
Barragán said one way to contribute to major change falls above all others.
“You have to vote,” Barragán said. “I think voting is a key to the way in which we can get our point across. I know that there are younger candidates and candidates that are focusing on climate-related issues — whether it be Republican or Democratic representatives — so just participating in our democratic process.”
Personal Impact of Climate Anxiety
Since committing to climate advocacy, Weinfeld said she has felt such an overwhelming responsibility to prevent detrimental outcomes that it led to unhealthy consequences for her own wellbeing. For example, she said her interest in food sustainability led to an “enormous” sense of pressure around the ethicality of what she eats and where she buys her food.
“I lost weight because I was having so much anxiety about whether or not the foods I was eating were sustainable or ethically sourced,” Weinfeld said. “That’s definitely a big example of how I internalized these things — I was taking my classes and taking them home with me. Then, there was a tremendous amount of guilt.”
Moore said she had a similar experience to Weinfeld when shopping for clothes. As she did more research, however, she said she realized those in power must take responsibility for producing unsustainable products, as well.
“Take fast fashion, for example,” Moore said. “There’s this whole narrative that it’s the consumers’ fault and we need to choose what we buy more ethically — which I think is true. At the same time, I feel like the big corporations that are producing these products are the fashion companies. It’s on them to change the way that they’re producing things more than it is on us.”
In the end, Moore said there are many little things everyone can do that will make a difference, but the key is that everyone actually has to follow through. She said her future will always be dampened by the climate crisis, but that does not mean anyone should give up on doing what they can.
“I don’t think you can escape this,” Moore said. “It’s just sad that our generation has to make choices based on climate change.”
Barragán said it can be discouraging to put so much effort into a cause without seeing an immediate positive outcome.
“It’s really hard when you realize that your small actions maybe aren’t making that big impact that you might think they are,” Barragán said.
The key to finding the motivation within himself to continue taking action is to change the way he thinks about his impact, Barragán said. It is about doing what he hopes those who come after him will do too, he said.
“It’s switching our mindset,” Barragán said. “I really just want to be able to instill that in my life, in the people’s lives around me and my kids’, my grandkids’. So I definitely feel it’s on us — it’s on our generation.”
Finding Peace in Uncertainty
Barragán said having a plan for how he will do his part in the future to prevent climate change brings him peace.
“It’s become a goal of mine to work for a nonprofit or a business that is pro-climate change legislation, and similarly, just living my life in accordance,” Barragán said.
Moore said she found a balance of being aware of her impact on the climate crisis and letting it take over her life.
“We can’t be perfect,” Moore said. “Something that I advocate for is just to do the best with what you have in the moment.”
Traitz said the key to avoiding climate anxiety is to find balance in consumption of the news about it. Traitz also said reminding oneself of their love for the planet to disassociate feelings of anxiety with the Earth is important. Some ways to do this include hiking and gardening, and paying attention to the details of nature like the colors and smells of plants and trees.
“Find other ways to channel the energy,” Traitz said. “Find a connection to the world that isn’t just about it being this doomed thing where we’re only relating to the world as a set of statistics.”
It is good for humans to have the tendency to fight danger, such as climate change, Traitz said. At the same time, though, she said people should try to balance the tendency to fight the stress with nourishing a connection to the Earth.
“If we’re just all fight-or-flight response and we’re in that mode, we’re not as open to taking in the sense of connection that I think we need to sustain an act,” Traitz said. “We have to love it [the Earth] to fight for it.”
These are additional resources, courtesy of Lauren Traitz, about combating and understanding climate anxiety.
- All We Can Save Project x Gen Dread
- Climate Psychology Alliance — North America
- The Australian Climate and Health Alliance
Solace and Support:
- “All The Feelings Under the Sun: How to Deal with Climate Change” by Leslie Davenport • Climate Psychology Alliance UK
- “How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other” by Naomi Klein with Rebecca Stettoff
- “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet” by Sarah Jaquette Ray
- “Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy” by Joanna Macy
- “Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times” by Dr. Lise Van Susteren, M.D. and Stacey Colino
- “I Work in the Environmental Movement. I Don’t Care If You Recycle.,” published in Vox 2019, by Mary Annaise Heglar
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About the Author
Current Graphic position: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Editor
Number of semesters with the Graphic: 3
Minor: Ethnic Studies
Emphasis: Political Science