Eco-anxiety

How is climate change linked to mental health?

7 min read

07 Dec 2021

Text

Atte Palomäki

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123RF

7 min read

07 Dec 2021

Text:

Atte Palomäki

Photo:

123RF
 

Eco-anxiety is a term used to describe the chronic fear of environmental doom. Research shows that the majority of the X and Y generation around the world now feel sad, fearful and distressed about climate change. This is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with responsibly. Joining me to talk about the topic are Dr. Emma Lawrance, a mental health innovations Fellow at Imperial College, London's Faculty of Medicine and Anya Kamenetz, a writer and correspondent at NPR, who joins us from New York. 

Emma, grief, shame and rage are all being linked to climate change – all of which are extremely strong and negative emotions. What is the correlation between climate change and mental health and how grave is the problem of eco-anxiety?

Emma: It's important to understand that these are understandable and even healthy responses to the threats that we're facing. It means that you have empathy for others outside yourself and care for the world. So, this is not a mental illness in itself and can be seen as even an adaptive and healthy response.

But it also is a stressor. We see that in a survey of 10,000 young people in 10 countries around the world, 45% said that worry and stress about climate change were affecting their daily life – their sleep, their relationships and their work. So this is very serious.

Anya, how does this look from your perspective?

Anya: You can think of children as being like the inhabitants of an island nation where they're more vulnerable. They're also like the inhabitants of many lower-income countries; they've contributed less to the problems. So, they're suffering more in the future and they also have less responsibility. And I think that what's unacknowledged, and often goes silenced in the intergenerational conversation, is the feeling of guilt parents have that they brought kids into this situation. And that guilt can lead to avoidance, it can lead to silence.

Do you feel that us as parents, teachers and adults, can see this across the generations? Do we understand the magnitude of the problem?

Anya: I don't know if anyone takes in the totality of the problem of climate. I think parents, especially coming out of the COVID crisis, have quite a lot on our plates. And we're very consumed with the present day, the present moment. So, that makes it hard. We just don't have as much time and energy to think about the totality of things. I surveyed teachers as part of my work for National Public Radio a couple of years ago and found there's broad agreement among both teachers and parents that children ought to be learning about the climate crisis and the basic facts. But many fewer parents and teachers felt that they were actually equipped to teach it.

Is this purely a phenomenon of the younger generation, or are there other groups such as indigenous people, or people from vulnerable geographies who suffer from eco-anxiety?

Emma: We see this also in indigenous communities in farming communities and people on the frontlines, where there's a strong connection to nature. And we saw that in the survey of 10,000 young people around the world. The results of that study also showed that in contrast – what some people thought of as eco-anxiety, sort of a ‘rich nation, western, white’ problem – that people or countries where there was more direct experience were actually showing increased anxiety and distress because they are more exposed.

How can schools help the youth to deal with issues like this?

Anya: There's so much that schools can do and I think what's fascinating about it is that schools which gravitate towards the climate crisis are taking a lot of actions that really are positive and beneficial for 21st-century skills. So, what I mean by that is schools that are looking at the whole process of the school, looking at the food that they eat, looking at getting children civically engaged, looking at hands-on science, and getting children into engaged involved citizens. I think the climate is an incredible multi-disciplinary topic. And when schools really embrace that challenge, what results is an incredibly engaging curriculum. It's a challenge for sure. But embracing that challenge takes us in a direction where we have much better education all round. 

What responsibility should the media shoulder here?

Anya: The narratives that we're presented within the media that touch on climate change are oftentimes fragmented, frightening or else quite technical. We hear about giant government reports, or we hear about flooding and fires and there are not a lot of attempts to connect the dots. I think what the media could do a much better job of is representing the positive actions that folks are taking all across the board – whether that be entrepreneurs, activists or youth. I think in the media, and I can speak from inside it, there tends to be a reluctance to present the views of advocates as though that's going to introduce a bias, rather than just sort of straightforwardly saying: ‘this is the work that they're trying to do, these are the solutions they're presenting and they have positions and pros and cons, just like anybody else’.

Do you think that governments and health officials across the world recognise this as a public health issue?

Emma: Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of ways that climate change impacts mental health. Even with increasing temperatures, we see increasing suicide rates, and increased hospitalisations for mental illness, while people with pre-existing mental illnesses are more likely to die in a heatwave. So, this is a big public health issue. Climate change is a health emergency and a mental health emergency. And governments need to account for that. This is currently a completely hidden cost and we need to account for it. 

Studies also show that there's growing trust in businesses versus government. So in that context, are there some concrete actions that companies and employers should take to help millennials feel less anxious about the environment?

Anya: There are brands that have been successful in this area; they have made commitments that are evident. Hydro Flask is a random example – it's playing an eco-friendly role in children's lives and young people's lives. And so that's reliable, that's something that they can believe in. All the young people that I know want to find work in a field or find a job that is, in a verifiable way, making the world a better place. So, I think that's going to be a very important factor going forward for companies that are hiring this generation. 

Emma: I completely agree. I think that there's a bit of a shift going on there. And so I think in terms of what industry can do, it's similar to what governments can do in some ways: take actual action, open up your heart to what's happening and take the action that's needed. That's what young people are telling us that they want. And that's what they want from governments. That's what they want from the industry.

This interview has been abridged. To hear the complete conversation, please listen to the podcast.