Have you ever felt stressed, hopeless or worried about the future when you think of climate change? You are not alone! Research suggests that climate change can impact our mental health and wellbeing (Berry, Bowen, & Kjellstrom 2010; Coffey 2021; Gifford & Gifford 2016; Padhy et al. 2015; Patrick et al. 2022). Young people (18-24 years) are especially vulnerable to these mental health and wellbeing impacts of climate change. This is because they are experiencing climate change impacts now and possibly throughout their lifespan.
Young people are at a stage in life where they are developing their personal beliefs, values, and ethics and expanding their awareness and knowledge of global issues. For many young people, increasing their knowledge and awareness about climate change serves as a healthy response to this complex problem. They use it to motivate themselves to take climate action (Gunasiri et al. 2022a; Ojala & Bengtsson 2019). Climate action can be either individual, such as recycling or gardening, or community action, such as participating in climate strikes or beach cleanups.
On the other hand, young people may experience emotions such sadness, grief, stress, worry, hopelessness and powerlessness related to climate change that can negatively impact their mental health and wellbeing. In recent studies, new terms including ‘eco-anxiety’ and ‘climate anxiety’ have come into play describing these emotions related to climate change impacts (Clayton 2020; Panu 2020; Stewart 2021). Young people may experience these emotions because they feel like it is their responsibility to mitigate climate change impacts. They are aware that their generation and future generations will be the most affected by climate change and therefore feel the urgency to make a difference.
Unfortunately, many young people with climate anxiety are not understood or listened to by society (Gibbons 2014; Gunasiri et al. 2022b). This has made them feel more hopeless, powerless, and like their voice is not being heard (Gunasiri et al. 2022b). We can all play a valuable role in understanding their feelings and supporting them to find ways to cope with climate change-related mental health and wellbeing impacts. As suggested by headspace (2021), below are some ways we can support young people experiencing climate anxiety:
- Communicate with them to understand their concerns and worries regarding climate change and the impacts it may be having on their mental health. It is important to listen to them deeply with empathy and focus on shared views.
- Acknowledge their feelings and let them know that their feelings are valid. Keep in mind not to de-emphasize the seriousness of the issue for them or jump quickly to solutions.
- Discuss changes that you can start collectively within your household.
- Support them to find balance between serious things in life and fun activities
- Share good and inspirational news stories about what people are doing to mitigate climate change.
- Give reassurance that it is not solely their responsibility and that many people are working towards sustainable solutions.
- Give reassurance that individual action matters and do not underestimate their contribution to social action.
- Express gratitude, respect, and admiration for their commitment towards mitigating climate change impacts and that their love and care for the environment are valued.
- If you have concerns that climate change related mental health and wellbeing impacts are interfering with their daily life, validate their experience and normalise seeking extra support including professional support when needed. Explore support options together with the young person.
Let’s all try to listen to what young people have to say and ensure that their emotions are validated and used constructively towards reducing climate change-related mental health and wellbeing impacts.
Hasini Gunasiri is a PhD student in the Sustainable Health Network, School of Health and Social Development, and a member of the Institute for Health Transformation at Deakin University. Deakin’s Sustainable Health Network facilitates the generating of knowledge and translating evidence to real world solutions with a multi-disciplinary, co-designed and systems approach to sustainable health. Hasini’s research focuses on young people’s mental health in a changing climate.
Check out the Deakin Sustainable Health Network team’s research:
Patrick R, Snell T, Gunasiri H, Garad R, Meadows G, and Enticott J (2022) ‘Prevalence and determinants of mental health related to climate change in Australia’, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. https://doi:10.1177/00048674221107872
Gunasiri H, Wang Y, Capetola T, Henderson-Wilson C, and Patrick R (2022a) ‘Bushfires, COVID-19 and Young People’s Climate Action in Australia’, EcoHealth 19, 149–153. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10393-022-01595-7
Gunasiri H, Wang Y, Watkins E-M, Capetola T, Henderson-Wilson C, and Patrick R (2022b) ‘Hope, Coping and Eco-Anxiety: Young People’s Mental Health in a Climate-Impacted Australia’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(9):5528. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19095528
Sciberras E and Fernando JW (2021) ‘Climate change-related worry among Australian adolescents: an eight-year longitudinal study’, Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 27(1), 22. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12521
Berry HL, Bowen K, Kjellstrom T (2010) ‘Climate change and mental health: a causal pathways framework’, International journal of public health, 55(2): 123–132, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00038-009-0112-0
Clayton S (2020) ‘Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change’, Journal of anxiety disorders,74, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102263
Coffey Y, Bhullar N, Durkin J, Islam MS, Usher K (2021) ‘Understanding Eco-anxiety: A Systematic Scoping Review of Current Literature and Identified Knowledge Gaps’, The Journal of Climate Change and Health,3, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joclim.2021.100047
Gibbons ED (2014) ‘Climate Change, Children’s Rights, and the Pursuit of Intergenerational Climate Justice’, Health & Human Rights: An International Journal, 16(1):19-31, accessed 25 May 2021. https://ezproxy.deakin.edu.au/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=96563472&site=eds-live&scope=site
Gifford E and Gifford R (2016) ‘The largely unacknowledged impact of climate change on mental health’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 72(5):292–297, https://doi.org/10.1080/00963402.2016.1216505
headspace (2022) what is anxiety & the effects on mental health, headspace, accessed 10 July 2022. What Is Anxiety & The Effects on Mental Health | headspace
Ojala M & Bengtsson H (2019) ‘Young People’s Coping Strategies Concerning Climate Change: Relations to Perceived Communication with Parents and Friends and Proenvironmental Behavior’, Environment and Behavior, 5(8): 907–935, https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916518763894
Padhy SK, Sarkar S, Panigrahi M and Paul S (2015) ‘Mental health effects of climate change’, Indian Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 9(1): 3–7, https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5278.156997
Panu P (2020) ‘Anxiety and the Ecological Crisis: An Analysis of Eco-Anxiety and Climate Anxiety’, Sustainability, 12(19), https://doi.org/10.3390/su12197836
Stewart AE (2021) ‘Psychometric Properties of the Climate Change Worry Scale’, International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(2), https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18020494