Eco anxiety: Climate change and youth mental health

Jo Gate-Eastley, Senior Counsellor at Goldsmiths University, explores how environmental threat and uncertainty could be feeding into youth mental health issues – and how activism could be an antidote for our eco anxiety.

Students in Lancaster strike for climate action
Students in Lancaster strike for climate action

Feelings of anxiety and helplessness about climate change could be improved by getting involved in activism – but we must not leave young people to carry the burden alone, says Jo Gate-Eastley 

Jo Gate-Eastley

Having worked as a therapist with children and young people for 18 years, and currently leading a counselling service within a university, the discourse around an escalating youth mental health crisis will regularly hit my inbox. All too frequently this is met with a hand wringing about resourcing of mental health services, which I would echo, but also a sense of bewilderment: ‘What can the matter be’? Rarely have I encountered an argument for considering the impact of a very uncertain future – in which the 'only home we've ever known' looks to be under irreparable threat – on the psyche of our young people.

As therapists, we are taught early on that it’s the stuff we know about and worry about, yet can’t talk about, that can lead to anxiety, depression and associated mental health issues. Until very recently, there has been an overwhelming silence and relative inactivity around the topic of climate breakdown, inarguably disproportionate to the scale of the crisis we are facing. Despite a recent kickstart to the conversation – prompted by protests and direct action from Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the inspired school strikes – the responses nationally and globally are far from adequate and we must, at some level, know this.

The term eco anxiety, a ‘chronic fear of environmental doom’, is now being used more frequently within mainstream media.

As an adult, with at least some sense of potency (if only at the ballot box), this can feel maddening and debilitating in equal measure. So what, then, is the psychological impact on our current generation of young people, growing up in the ‘digital age’, where knowledge and information can be accessed easily (and often intrusively)? How can they be asked to assimilate and process that which isn’t being addressed and acted upon at a more authoritative level? And, more importantly, why aren’t we trying to address, contain and mitigate the deep fear, despair, rage and frustration that will inevitably underpin this?

Perhaps a collective sense of guilt about what has happened to the planet ‘on our watch’, alongside our own inability to address the topic ourselves, has meant that children and young people are often left holding the anxiety without a containing adult to help process and regulate it. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) produced a detailed report on Mental Health and Our Changing Climate in 2017. The report identifies that, although health impacts are often considered when discussing climate change, ‘connections with mental health are not often part of the discussion’, acknowledging the need to ‘expand information and action on climate and health, including mental health’.

Within the summary, it is recognised that ‘psychological factors (like psychological distance), a political divide, uncertainty, helplessness, and denial influence the way people comprehend information and form their beliefs on climate change.’ That many of us are still lucky enough to be at the ‘forming a belief’ stage – rather than feeling the direct impact of floods, storms, wildfires and heatwaves – perhaps means the above psychological factors can still be drawn upon. But the report glossary outlines eco anxiety as ‘a chronic fear of environmental doom’, and this term is now being used more frequently within mainstream media.

With the increased profile and influence of young climate activist Greta Thunberg, and her own documented battle with mental health, we can see the importance of incremental action, however small, on influencing change – both internally and externally.

Becoming involved with activism can be a powerful antidote to the anxiety that climate change awareness can bring.

It is hard not to feel immensely moved and awestruck by the recent uprising of school strikes across the globe. That these have occurred at such scale communicates several points that I believe we must heed. Firstly, that climate change is very much on the minds of young people – the media and political silence has not shielded them from this awareness. Secondly, that becoming involved with activism can be a powerful antidote to the anxiety that this awareness can bring. And finally, whilst we can feel immensely proud and inspired by these movements, we must not leave young people (many of whom cannot vote yet) to carry this burden alone.

The APA report emphasises that ‘building resilience is essential to address the physical and mental health impacts of climate change’, concluding with four sets of recommendations to support individuals and communities. These include ‘building belief in one’s own resilience’, ‘promoting connectedness to family, place, culture, and community’, and having ‘clear and frequent climate-mental health communication’. Whilst these recommendations seem to be aimed at ‘practitioners, policymakers and communicators’, perhaps they can be employed universally by all of us as a set of guidelines to aspire to.

Jo Gate-Eastley is a Senior Counsellor at Goldsmiths University, writing independently for Green World.