Russ Levy first thought about climate change in Grade 2.
The 17-year-old Mississauga high school student has a vivid memory of feeling upset on Earth Day, when he learned how human activity is causing irreversible damage to the natural world. This moved him to tears.
“I found it very upsetting that people could make the Earth sick,” Levy recalled. “That’s how my brain thought about it back then.”
Levy has come to learn more about climate change and its impact. But he remains just as upset as his younger self, and he’s not the only one.
In the latest Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, conducted every two years by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) for more than 40 years of students from Grade 7 to Grade 12, half of respondents expressed concern about climate change, saying it is fuelling their anxiety and making them feel depressed about the future.
It is the first time the survey asks students directly about the impact of climate change on their mental health, opening discussions about “climate anxiety” among a generation that believes they will inherit worsening natural disasters. The survey is also the first during the pandemic, offering a “snapshot” of how students across the province have been coping, said Dr. Hayley Hamilton, a senior scientist at CAMH.
“Youth are still struggling with mental health-related issues,” Hamilton said. “This was the case prior to the pandemic, and it continues to be the case.”
Alarmingly, the survey found one in five students reported harming themselves on purpose in the past year, up from one in seven in 2019, and 18 per cent said they seriously contemplated suicide.
The survey, conducted between March and June of last year, faced some logistical challenges. Surveys were traditionally done in the classroom with pencil and paper, but with online learning, students had to fill out the survey on their own time, Hamilton said. This reduced participation significantly, with only 2,225 Ontario students in this survey, from 122 schools, versus more than 14,000 in 2019.
Still, researchers say the survey provides an eye-opening look at the mental outlook of students during the height of the pandemic. The results found that over half of students feel depressed about the future because of COVID-19, and more than one-third of students said the pandemic has “very much” or “extremely” affected their mental health.
These results are “discouraging” said Dr. Joanna Henderson, also a senior scientist at CAMH and executive director of Youth Wellness Hubs Ontario, a network of walk-in community mental health centres.
“As a person who is very committed to improving the well-being of young people, it’s a call to action for sure.”
The survey found 47 per cent of students reported moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression in the past month. Of all the students surveyed, 42 per cent said they wanted to seek help in the past year for their mental health but didn’t know where to go.
These findings ring true for Levy, who also sits on CAMH’s youth advisory council. The pandemic, he said, has exacerbated a sense of loneliness for youth his age at a time when they’re asking important questions like, “What matters to me? Where am I in this world?”
“We didn’t have the ability to explore those questions for a long time,” Levy said, adding some of his peers have decided to forgo post-secondary education as a result.
As for the inability to seek help, Levy said some of his peers face wait time up to 2023 to access long-term mental health help due to backlogs.
While the pandemic has caused distress, , climate change has also been a cause for anxiety among young people, according to CAMH psychiatrists that work directly with youth. It is why the question about climate change was included in this latest youth survey, said Sean Kidd, a clinical psychologist at CAMH.
Kidd, whose research focuses on how climate change impacts marginalized communities, said that with the growing frequency of extreme weather events worldwide, many young people have been obsessively thinking about the viability of their future.
““At this point in their lives, they can often feel not very empowered to do something about it,” Kidd said.
Kidd said part of combating this growing climate anxiety is including young people in conversations about climate change, by listening to their ideas and empowering them to take eco-friendly actions in their own lives.
It’s about “acknowledging the scary stuff,” Kidd said, “but then going in the direction of ‘What can we do about it now and in the future?’ ”
The 2021 survey did include some positives: Binge drinking among Ontario’s young students dropped from 15 per cent in 2019 to eight per cent during the pandemic, likely due to limits in socializing, researchers said. Vaping also dropped from 23 per cent to 15 per cent.
Nearly half of students said they’ve been getting more sleep on a school night than before, and more than one-third of students said their relationship with their parents has gotten better since the pandemic.
But the wider snapshot still paints a picture of many students who are struggling, researchers said, with survey results reiterating the need for wider access to mental health care and support across Ontario.
If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, there is help. Resources are available online at crisisservicescanada.ca or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566, or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_