Eco-anxiety refers to anxiety or worry about the devastating effects climate change (CC) is having on the planet, and the instability and unpredictability it creates in young people’s lives, especially when planning and thinking about the future. Eco-anxiety is not considered to be a mental health diagnosis as such but it is characterised by symptoms of generalised anxiety and depressive disorders. It is seen as a widespread reaction among certain demographics as a result of the growing awareness of the problems that are resulting from CC.
There has been an increased amount of research lately pointing to an increase prevalence of eco-anxiety among children and youths. One survey asked NHS child and adolescent psychiatrists in England if they had seen patients distressed about environmental and ecological issues. The sample size was small with 47 of 82 replies received, but approx. 58% of those replied in the affirmative, not only had the patients appeared distressed about it – but those children and youths that were already struggling with a mental health disorder were likely to have worsening symptoms as a result.
Another study, however, had no such limitations in sample size. Hickman et al (2021) have just published a fresh paper surveying over 10 000 children and young people (16-25) in 10 different countries – with 1000 participants from each country (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK, and the USA).
They collected data on the participants thoughts and feelings about CC, as well as governments responses to CC. The data is disheartening; 59% of respondents reported being very or extremely worried, 84% were at least moderately worried about CC. More than 50% reported being sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty. More than 45% reported it having a negative impact on their daily lives and functioning. 75% view the future as frightening, and 83% think people have failed to take care of the planet. Most felt betrayed by governments rather than reassured.
58% of NHS child & adolescent psychiatrists patients in England said they were distressed about environmental and ecological issues. Children and youths that were already struggling with a mental health disorder were likely to have exacerbated conditions as a result.
The findings are novel in that they document a high level of psychological distress on an international, generational level directly as a result of poor or inadequate government action in response to CC. Whilst more research will be needed to confidently generalise the results on a global scale, there is little reason to think other countries would survey differently. It paints a bleak picture on the lived experiences of young people all over the world.
It is worth pointing out, that being anxious about the future when it comes to CC, is perfectly reasonable. The rise and prevalence of catastrophic news pieces predicting a damning future dominated by floods, hurricanes, food shortages, mass migration and the loss of life has to power to shake the confidence and mental health of any one of us. Younger generations are likely more vulnerable as they do not have the tools or power to ‘protect’ themselves from a basic, Maslow hierarchy of needs perspective. As a result, eco-anxiety is not a mental health disorder, but a rational response to the current narrative on CC. Eco-anxiety can however lead to a number of mental health disorders, especially as the day to day lives of youths and adolescents has been so violently dispossessed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Deprived of social contact and leisure activities, disruptions to schooling and general instability has already had significant effects on children’s development and wellbeing. If we factor in the reduction and insecurity of parents financial and mental health it is easy to see how the concerns and worries about CC can be an easy catalyst to the development of other mental health disorders.
Researchers at Imperial College have warned of an increasing prevalence of ‘environmental doom’ rising among children. They point out that these effects are likely also exacerbated by the fact that the devastating predictions and news being presented is often received with an callous level of indifference by people in power. The term environmental doom was first coined in 2017 by the American Psychiatric Association but is not yet formally recognized as a diagnosable condition.
The researchers proceed to make a connection between worsening mental health related to CC and barriers to inaction on a societal level, driven by fear, helplessness, conflict avoidance and resignation. Some people will be more susceptible to these emotional states and ignoring eco-anxiety as a phenomena is likely to deepen social inequalities and carry considerable socioeconomic costs.
If the effects of CC on mental health are allowed to persist unchecked it will affect the behaviour of those suffering its effects. For example, it can affect where people chose to live, what they buy, what they engage in, and even whether or not they decide to have children.
What can we do about it?
We can view solutions to eco-anxiety on a macro and micro level. On the one hand, if you notice symptoms of eco-anxiety, generalised anxiety or depressive disorder you can reach out to a health care provider to address the underlying symptoms – there are strategies in cognitive behavioural therapy intended to help our mind focus, address thought processes and fears behind anxiety and address them in order to regain control. For more serious cases there are medications available to support therapy and improve outcomes. Other self-management strategies also include reading independently, outside of traditional news sources that can be influenced by a desire to get as many views as possible through shock tactics and sensationalism, misrepresentation or straight up ‘fake news’. Reading and learning about the real science and data about the climate crisis through reputable sources, working to understand the issue and what can be done can help regain a sense of control.
Another tactic includes gathering and joining groups to get support from each other. Having someone around to talk to who shares your fears and worries can be a helpful way of working through difficult emotional states and promoting resilience. This can in turn lead to the group taking small steps to help contribute and develop climate solutions. This could include spreading information, cultivating a community garden, tidying local areas, recycling, reusing, sharing – any number of things that can improve small local carbon footprints.
Psychiatrist David Pollack works with the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. He points to the power of community in facing challenges such as these; the closer we feel to each other united in a common goal, the more committed we can be to finding solutions together too. This is generally known as activism, and whilst some groups have had some controversial attention in the media, there is nothing wrong with activism in itself – it can be an excellent way to channel eco-anxiety into action.
If you notice symptoms of eco-anxiety, generalised anxiety or depressive disorder you can reach out / refer to a health care provider to address the underlying symptoms – there are strategies in cognitive behavioural therapy intended to help our mind focus, address thought processes and fears behind anxiety and address them in order to regain control.
The fact remains that to this day, climate change isn’t even accepted by all leaders globally. The Centre for American Progress recently reported that there are still 139 elected officials in the 117th congress who refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence of human-caused CC. Those 139 officials have received more than 61 million dollars in lifetime contributions from the coal, oil and gas industries.
Whilst the USA is viewed as a hot bed for CC denialists they are far from isolated in this belief. In 2019 a Canadian non-profit organisation of 500 volunteers called ‘friends of science’ sent a registered letter to the United Nations stating there is no climate emergency, and pointing to an alternative list of causes such as ‘the models are incorrect’, ‘additional Co2 is good for the planet as it promotes a growth in plant biomass and increases the yields of crops worldwide’, ‘global warming has not increased natural disasters’ and ‘warming is slower than predicted’.
There are other groups available but we don’t feel the need to give them too much attention here. You are free to look up information about climate change denial. We follow the science and as it stands the international panel for climate change’s recent 2021 report was completed by over 243 leading global researchers informed by over 14 000 research papers – this is the leading research on the area. Any good scientist or health care professional should view this as the current consensus until new and better information comes along.
Younger generations need optimism, and the hope of a better future. This is where the macro approach is needed – the leaders of today and the leaders we elect in the future will need to demonstrate unequivocally that CC is their primary concern. They will have to carry out specific and serious large scale evidence based policies that take drastic and bold steps towards protecting the environment and the planet, ensuring younger generations that they do in fact, have a promising and bright future ahead.
Our blog series on climate change and the impact on our healthcare system: