With a Changing Climate, Students Are Facing a Mental Health Crisis

April 16, 2021 • KATE JAFFEE

Over the course of the last year, we have experienced a host of community-wide traumas that have affected both children and adults. The COVID-19 pandemic, ensuing recession, and ongoing racial injustices that led to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have caused collective trauma while exacerbating existing disparities. Climate events such as wildfires, severe flooding, and hurricanes are also traumatic. To cope, we need community-wide responses. Schools can play a role by supporting students’ mental health.

Rates of child trauma were alarmingly high even before the pandemic began. Over two-thirds of youth reported experiencing a traumatic event by age 16. Children and youth who experience trauma can have difficulty concentrating in school, managing their behavior, and building relationships with peers and adults, They may develop mental health issues such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, students may need additional social, emotional, mental health, and academic support in school. Most schools already have a shortage of mental health staff, and teachers receive little if any training on identifying and supporting students’ mental health needs.

Increasing capacity to address student mental health is a critical need that will be compounded by future climate impacts. Climate change is causing damage to schools and communities around the country, with the effects falling disproportionately on communities of color. Students are already experiencing the devastation caused by climate change—and the lack of sufficient climate action—with the increasing threat of severe weather only expected to continue.

Many students are grappling with the long-term impacts that climate change will have on their lives.

COVID-19 has shown that our education systems are not very resilient in the face of emergencies. Schools have tried to keep students learning and engaged through over a year of unplanned virtual and hybrid learning, but the pandemic has taken an enormous toll on students’ mental health, particularly for students of color. While the pandemic caught schools by surprise, we know that climate change threats are increasing in frequency and intensity.

One way that schools can prepare for climate impacts and build resilience is to support student mental health before severe weather events strike. These events can create widespread needs for mental health supports in schools. Hurricanes, wildfires, severe flooding, and other climate disasters can cause students and their families to experience homelessness, food insecurity, and loss. Extreme weather can also damage school buildings and lead to school closures, further disrupting their lives. Students may react to these experiences with a range of trauma responses and could develop other mental health issues later.

As schools ready themselves for the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, they should consider how they can support students in their wake. There are a number of ways schools can prepare to support mental health in a changing climate including:

  • Establishing partnerships. Partnering with community-based providers can increase school capacity both before and after a severe weather event. Districts can also consider proactively planning partnerships with other districts to increase capacity in the event of an emergency. After the Camp Fire in Northern California, Paradise Unified School District created partnerships with other districts, bringing in school mental health staff from across district lines to support students after the disaster.
  • Providing tiered supports. Not all students experience community-wide trauma in the same way, and even those with similar experiences can respond differently, both in the immediate aftermath and over time. Schools that work to provide universal, targeted, and intensive services and supports based on identified needs will be better prepared to support all students, regardless of their specific trauma responses.
  • Training educators and school staff. While teachers cannot be expected to take the place of trained mental health professionals, they can use trauma-informed practices to support students in the classroom. As a universal intervention, implementing these practices school-wide has the potential to help a large number of students in a school community, including those who may not be showing outward signs of trauma and may be less likely to receive targeted services.

Even without experiencing severe weather first-hand, many students are grappling with the long-term impacts that climate change will have on their lives. For some, this can turn into eco-anxiety—persistent worries about their own futures and the prospects for future generations. During a K12 Climate Action listening session, Dr. Aaron Bernstein of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE shared that strong relationships with supportive adults at school can be a protective factor for eco-anxiety. Schools can also help reduce this anxiety by teaching students about climate action and how they can be part of climate solutions.

We are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel from the devastation and disruption caused by the pandemic, but we can expect the effects of this collective trauma to linger for students of all ages. Addressing student mental health now can help with trauma recovery. It also lays the groundwork to promote students’ resilience in the face of future climate impacts. Children and youth who understand the impacts of climate change and receive the social, emotional, and mental health support they need will be better prepared to lead the way on climate action now—and in the future.

This piece is part of In Focus: Rising to the Climate Challenge, a multimedia informational campaign that draws on the expertise of Institute programs. We look at four main facets of the climate change issue—labor and the economy, youth and education, public health and safety, and communities. To get campaign updates and other news from the Aspen Institute in your inbox, sign up for our newsletter.

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