Sarah Schwartz, Ph.D. focuses on intersection between climate change and psychology

By Catherine Robertson Souter
October 1st, 2023
Sarah Schwartz, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology at Suffolk University
Sarah Schwartz, Ph.D, is an associate professor of psychology at Suffolk University.

Young people show more anxiety

From the tragic fires in Maui to the flash floods in Vermont, the media has been filled with news of the devastating effects of climate-related disasters.

As these types of events increase in frequency, so do concerns about the future of our planet. According to a study done by the American Psychological Association, 56 percent of U.S. adults point to climate change as “the most important issue facing society today.”

For many reasons, including a lack of agency and the sense that they will bear the burdens of a changing world, younger Americans are showing a heightened level of climate-related anxiety.

“While our research indicates climate anxiety is correlated with symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, we also see an association between climate anxiety and climate action, and we hear a lot of young people saying that climate anxiety is a motivator for them to try to make change.”

In a study published by The Lancet in 2021, of U.S. children and young adults ages16-25, 46 percent are extremely or very worried and 28 percent said that it impacts their functioning.

According to Sarah Schwartz, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology at Suffolk University, young people are showing signs of sleep disturbance, focus issues, hyper fixation on climate change and difficulty in basic enjoyment of life.

They may question the usefulness of an education in a world gone haywire or balk at the idea of having children. In her own sphere, she also sees correlating anxiety and fear among parents of young children.

Schwartz first became interested in focusing on the intersection between climate change and psychology when she was on maternity leave. After “doom-scrolling” online about the seriousness of the issue, she found herself wondering how she could put her clinical psychology training to use.

In a conversation with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter, Schwartz spoke about how shifting the focus of her research has helped her to better understand the need for the profession to do more to help individuals, but also to support educational efforts and policy change.

Q: First, can you define climate anxiety for us?

The term broadly refers to cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses associated with concerns about climate change. “Climate distress” may actually be more appropriate because it captures not just the anxiety or fear responses, but also sadness, grief, anger, and a range of different feelings that arise in the context of climate change.

It is important to note that climate anxiety is not a clinical diagnosis or an individual pathology. A majority of young people on earth are experiencing at least some sort of distress related to climate change. We need to conceptualize it as an understandable and appropriate response to the current global crisis and not treat it as a cognitive distortion that we need to challenge.

We also know that the impacts of climate change are worse for those who are already vulnerable due to systemic inequities. Basically, climate change is hardest on those who can afford it the least and who are contributing to it the least.

Research has shown that people of color, people from low-income backgrounds, and women, along with young people, tend to be more concerned about climate change. This makes sense in the context of the disproportional impacts of climate change on these groups, but these voices have for too long been pushed to the margins.

We need to make sure they are reflected in the climate movement and particularly among those making policy to address climate change.

Q: What are the best ways to address these issues in therapy?

We don’t have a lot of evidence-based research on addressing climate anxiety, but, as psychologists, we know how to equip people to cope in the context of distressing circumstances. We can validate the fear, anger, grief, and pain, and we can find ways to build feelings of agency and hope and connection.

Research shows that the majority of young people are concerned about this. Climate distress is something that should be on all therapists’ radar, but particularly those working with adolescents and young adults.

Q: How do we talk with parents around ways to help their children?

Parents and caregivers can play an important role in listening to and talking with their kids about climate change. Since it is a topic that can bring up anxiety, helplessness, or guilt in parents, a natural urge is to avoid it.

Talking about it can help children feel less alone with their feelings and parents can help children find positive ways to get involved. There’s also some interesting research about how children can foster higher levels of concern about climate change in their parents as well.

Climate education is increasingly being integrated into K-12 education, with New Jersey and Connecticut being the first states to introduce mandated climate education.

Some parents and policy makers fear that this will increase kids’ climate anxiety; yet, do we want them to be getting this information in a supported environment in the classroom or from social media?

It will be important to think about how we can make sure that mental health professionals are involved in the discussion around climate education. How do we teach it in a way that makes space for processing the emotions that come up, building a sense of hope and connection in the fight to address climate change, considering disparities in impacts, and providing opportunities to engage in collective action?

Q: Outside the therapy office, how does psychology promote better mental health around climate change?

Community is a really important piece. Research indicates that most people underestimate how much other people they know are concerned about climate change. By making space to have these conversations and allowing people to share the feelings coming up, we can combat the sense of isolation.

Some of the research I have conducted also suggests that engaging in collective action to address climate change could potentially buffer the effects of climate change anxiety on symptoms of depression by building a sense of agency and social connection.

While psychologists have often relied on an individual therapy model, this research suggests the need to also include group and community-based approaches to address mental health stressors such as climate anxiety.

Q: For younger people, does climate anxiety lead to a greater commitment to action, or to more of a sense of despondency?

While our research indicates climate anxiety is correlated with symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, we also see an association between climate anxiety and climate action, and we hear a lot of young people saying that climate anxiety is a motivator for them to try to make change.

Our research suggests that a lot of climate activists are quite pessimistic about the long-term outcome, yet they continue to engage in action. There is a quote by Vaclav Havel, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

As psychologists, we know that engaging in values-based action is important in terms of well-being, even if it does not necessarily result in the desired outcome.

Our work also indicates that we need to provide more opportunities to engage in climate action. Psychologists can provide structure, community, and support around this, making meaningful impacts not just in building hope and empowerment but also in making real change.

So, we are talking about action that both can be helpful for individual mental health and well-being, as well as for the health and well-being of the planet.

Q: Why is this an important issue with which to get involved?

We are seeing skyrocketing levels of climate anxiety and we’ll only continue to see more as people are more regularly impacted by climate change in their day-to-day life. We’re also in the midst of a youth mental health crisis.

When young people are telling us, “We are scared of the future. We are scared about climate change. We are angry. We are grieving,” it’s our responsibility as adults, as professionals, as human beings, to listen.

And it is our responsibility to respond and to do all we can do to support them in the work they’re doing to make change and to equip them with skills they need to navigate the world we have left them. And finally, it is also our job to use whatever power or skills we have to do what we can to address this global threat.

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