The political is personal: Teen mental health and why it feels like ‘the end of the world’

Santa Cruz students protest demanding climate action ahead of Earth Day
Santa Cruz students protest demanding climate action ahead of Earth Day.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Ami Chen Mills is worried about our planet, our youth — including her own daughters — and our politicians and leaders, who she feels are not taking up the biggest issues of our day. “Where are our leaders,” she writes, “on the threat of rising fascism and loss of women’s rights, which are girls’ rights, loss of history and loss of rights and belonging for LGBTQ+ people and Black people across the country?” Chen Mills leans on Buddhist teaching and her experience as a wellness teacher to reframe what it means to be an activist today and to push us to express our fears about climate change and other pressing issues more openly.

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When the first atmospheric river hit, back in January, my family was in the Sierras, in a cabin with snow piled nearly past the tops of the windows.

We drove home slowly through near whiteout conditions, big rigs jackknifed up against snow banks that marked the edge of the freeway and a plummeting drop below. The question of “lanes” was off the table. We kept our distance from other cars, driving with a tight grip on the steering wheel until we finally arrived on the soggy streets of Sacramento for lunch.

Somewhere within this journey, my oldest daughter, who is 19, became distraught.

“It feels like the end of the world!” she said.

A feeling of sadness washed over me that day, too, and still washes over me from time to time. A familiar grieving for the future and a sense of despair about humanity.

We’ve blown it, I think. And this, indeed, is sad.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data about teen mental health that painted a picture we already suspected was dire. Teen mental health is declining. Particularly among girls. This report included increased “sexual attacks” on girls and young women.

The main media “talking points” about this study leaped right past an apparent rise of violent, toxic masculinity. Instead, most media reports focused on the dire effects of the pandemic or social media.

A March forum on climate sponsored by the Democratic Women’s Club of Santa Cruz County (DWC) naturally centered on the levee breach in Pajaro, which displaced thousands of farmworkers, small farmers and low-income families. The rains have stopped, but the needs remain. And the droughts will continue, as the forum and overwhelming climate science have made clear. As will the fires.

How much is the weight of the world — of a national and global future that is uncertain and filled with discontinuity and danger


Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet,” Thich Nhat Hahn
Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy,” Joanna Macy

Regeneración — Climate Action Pajaro Valley
Citizens’ Climate Lobby (national): Lynda Marin, local lead (
Santa Cruz Climate Justice Crew: Batya Kagan and Michelle Merrill, leads (
Environteers, clearinghouse for local eco-volunteerism

Contact Ami for more recommendations:

a part of the load upon our children, particularly girls and LGBTQ+ youth?

And why do we not talk about this?

I recently asked a self-admittedly privileged young woman now studying at Oxford how much lighter she would feel if the climate crisis were removed entirely from her mind.

Her answer: 40 percent.

What about the neo-fascist threat in the United States, the GOP-led attacks on women’s rights, drag shows, drag queens and books and studies about anyone not straight, white and Christian?

“A huge cloud over my head would be gone. It literally dwarfs everything I want to worry about, like my career and my personal life.”

This same woman’s brother, a high school junior, told me Gen Z sees a future that does not include homeownership, but rather school shootings, endless debt and a bleak climate and political landscape.

In her classic book “Active Hope,” Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy cites a mental health study from 2007 — 16 years ago — which reported that one in four people were “less inclined to plan for the future” due to “world conditions.”

While our mostly multimillionaire Congress berates the CEO of TikTok for “corrupting” our children, where is this same Congress on the Alaska Willow project — a fossil-fueled debacle on federal land Joe Biden promised never to advance?

Where are our leaders on the threat of rising fascism and loss of women’s rights, which are girls’ rights, loss of history and loss of rights and belonging for LGBTQ+ people and Black people across the country?

Some of the DWC climate panelists in March shared a personal, emotional weight I have not felt before from our electeds, a weight many activists I know have shouldered for years, if not decades.

And I found this, actually, refreshing.

Facing reality and sorting through our feelings is why so many of us are willing to sacrifice so much of our time, our energy and our resources to show up at banks with signs, to travel to D.C., San Francisco, Minnesota and Standing Rock to help move the dial.

Santa Cruz students protest demanding climate action ahead of Earth Day
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The way out” of climate despair, writes Thich Nhat Hanh in “Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet,” “is in. You have to … face your deepest fears and accept the impermanence of our civilization.”

After we accept our feelings, we can do our best, Hanh tells us: “The future of the planet doesn’t depend solely on one person, but you [can] do your part. And that is why you have peace.”

Activism helps. When one’s house is on fire, sitting on the couch in a state of denial is not healthy. Neither is simply rearranging the furniture. And this is what I have seen in our corporate news media and from governmental officials (but not all) for decades now.

And activism — or simply just “action” — is not without joy.

Joy is always here, or potentially here.

In the face of everything, we are asked to be present in the deepest way, in a way that does not ignore or minimize current threats. We can rejoice in what still is … while taking bolder steps toward rapid drawdown of CO2 and mutual aid.

Elected officials must be more courageous. We still frack and drill for oil in this state, while our leaders accept donations from the unions and energy companies behind this. And the state retirement system (CalPERS) still refuses to divest from fossil fuels. Our news media must face our current reality and its profit-driven causes. Corporate executives must examine their roles and damage done by their own industries.

We can no longer ignore the compounding effects of attacks on democracy, a failing economic system, the gobbling-up of life itself, it seems, by multinational hedge funds and the inherent greed of our system … the emergence of U.S. shantytowns.

“Business-as-usual” cannot sustain us. It is time for radical change.

Ami Chen Mills is an environmental activist.
Ami Chen Mills is an environmental activist.
(Via Ami Chen Mills)

If our young people see adults in their worlds acting on behalf of their futures, accepting the damage we have done, and our negligence in attending to problems that affect them profoundly, they might see at least a path of sanity toward some kind of stable future.

Life is still good for many of us. This means we can still help one another. We can still love one another. Maybe we can learn to do this better.

Let us all be increasingly bold, more present to our feelings and more deeply grateful, vibrantly grateful for all that still is.

Let’s also ask: How can we share and spread the wealth in this nation? How can we engage young people in meaningful action, in building a better future that might be even outside of failing systems?

Earth Herself asks for our unrelenting honesty. Maybe this is why she rains upon us without ceasing, and sets herself on fire. Until we wake up … until we wake up.

Ami Chen Mills is an activist and executive director at Sustainable Systems Research Foundation. She is a mother of teens, a poet, author and wellness teacher and is at work on a book about spirituality and activism.

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