Youth Activists Experience a Mental Toll From the Climate Crisis

Having spent a decade in the youth climate movement, author Tori Tsui wants to bring attention to the stress and anxiety that the work can cause.

(Bloomberg) — “I think so many of us have had to forfeit our youth because we feel an obligation to do this.  A lot of us have missed out on things that others have had because we’ve made this choice — or have we made this choice? Because many people don’t think it’s a choice, especially with the gravity of the situation.” The mental health impacts of the climate crisis and the toll on young activists keeps Tori Tsui up at night. Her first book, It’s Not Just You , came out in July. — As told to Olivia Rudgard

I think it’s pretty safe to say that the climate crisis does keep me up at night. Not just in its manifestation, but also how we are dealing with it or not dealing with it. I think we should be quite specific here: how world leaders and governments and corporations aren’t dealing with it. We take the weight of the world on our shoulders and we feel partly responsible. I’ve definitely been in a situation before where I’ve been like, ‘Am I not doing enough? Am I not being disruptive enough? How can I use my power and my privilege to really challenge the government?’ 

There’s so much infighting that comes from that narrative of, ‘Oh, people aren’t doing enough.’ As a result of that, we end up contending with a lot of jealousy, which in many ways also keeps me up at night. But the reality is that there are just some very strong, powerful people who [make] decisions over how the world’s run. And I’m not saying that that power is impenetrable, but it does feel like an uphill battle sometimes. I feel like we need mass mobilization, and trying to get everybody on board can feel like such a challenge.

I’ve found myself in this position where I’ve been put on this pedestal and find myself as a spokesperson, where a lot of the time I don’t feel like I’m fully qualified. It is very stressful thinking about what it means to faithfully represent this movement and not fall prey to cults of personality.

I grew up in Hong Kong and I was very vocal about climate change when I was living there. I think when you grow up in a place where freedom and safety isn’t guaranteed, you learn quite early on that you have to speak up. 

I was a research scientist for a while, that gave me the confidence to research and write about things. But more than anything, it was informed by my lived realities of being mentally unwell for a long time. Through those experiences I really came to interrogate — what was it that was making me so unwell? What is it about my existence that means that I find it difficult to exist in this world? Part of it is being a woman, part of it’s being racialized, part of it’s also being someone who’s neurodivergent and finding it difficult to fit into the so-called neurotypical ways of being. And then the large part of it is the climate crisis and how all of those things intersect. 

I feel like far too often these experiences of being unwell in relation to the climate crisis get relegated as eco-anxiety. But the reality is far more complex. I don’t think it’s a farfetched thing to say that the way in which our planet is being destroyed by some very powerful people is something that causes immense grief. I don’t feel like eco-anxiety is a big enough term to describe those feelings of rage and frustration and heartbreak that I’m experiencing.

I’m 29, and I’ve been in this movement for 10 years. I started out as a youth climate activist, but now that I’m nearly 30, I don’t feel like one anymore. But I can speak a lot about what it means to be a youth climate activist, because I was one. It’s really interesting navigating that, because there’s an obsession with youth climate activism. These days, I’m more interested in how we build intergenerational action. 

It’s very marketable to say that young people care about the climate crisis, because it’s kind of endearing at the same time. But I think that really takes away the agency that all of us have.

–With assistance from Olivia Rudgard.

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