Climate anxiety and young people

Young people are worried about climate change. Negative emotions can disrupt rest, which in turn can affect their mental health. However, climate anxiety can also drive young people to act.

There is no way to prevent young people, even children, from knowing what is happening with the world. It’s on the news, it’s discussed in schools, it’s at the dinner table, and their friends talk about it. Climate change is real and, to a lot of young people, the future of the planet seems doomed.

In the eyes of many young people, adults have failed and now it’s up to them to act on behalf of the planet. Research shows that, across the globe, young people in general are really worried about climate change. Some feel desperate and see a deterioration in their mental health. Others hold on to this climate anxiety and turn it into action and pro-environmental behaviour.

Surely, climate change will have a direct or indirect impact on people of all ages across the world. But according to a paper in The Lancet Planetary Health published in December 2021 and led by Caroline Hickman, a researcher on eco-anxiety and a lecturer at the University of Bath (UK),  it will “disproportionately burden children and young people at the same time, as they are developing psychologically, physically, socially, and neurologically”.

Hickman’s team warns that “quantitative research on a global scale is missing but is vital considering that contemporary children will live with the climate crisis for their whole lives”.

A year later, more research on climate anxiety conducted in 32 countries brings hope. However, this study also makes clear that “there remains a need for further investigation of factors that may shape the way climate anxiety affects people’s well-being in different societies and social groups”.

Part of this latest study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, was researcher Katariina Salmela-Aro.

Katariina Salmela-Aro profileKatariina Salmela-Aro, Academy Professor, University of Helsinki (Finland): “In the second decade of life (from the age of 10), we don’t see such a strong sense of worry or anxiety. However, from the age of 15, we can really see that when young people start thinking about their values and building their identity, they think more about climate change.”Read the full interview of Katariina Salmela-Aro

Climate anxiety: not (yet) recognised as a mental illness

Eco-anxiety may have been around for decades, but it has attracted more attention in the last five years. In 2017, the American Psychological Association first described eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. Climate anxiety, related to climate change and extreme weather events, is just one part of the existential fear related to what may happen in the future.

The experience of environment-related distress is characterised by an array of negative emotions, such as fear, worry, rage, grief, guilt, shame, hopelessness or despair. The concept of ‘anxiety’ aggregates this wide range of negative emotions, but according to Mala Rao, Professor and Senior Clinical Fellow at Imperial College London (UK), eco-anxiety or climate anxiety “is not yet recognised as a diagnosable condition”.

Being worried about ecological problems does not have to be a pathological worry.

Mala Rao profileMala Rao, Professor and Senior Clinical Fellow, Department of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London (UK): “As eco-anxiety is not yet even recognised as a diagnosable condition and the scale of the problem is escalating rapidly, the challenge for mental health professionals is considerable. However, they are beginning to recognise the crucial role they have in supporting young people who are experiencing eco-anxiety to address their problem and build their emotional resilience.”Read the full interview of Mala Rao

The Climate Psychology Alliance sees climate anxiety as an adaptive emotional reaction to a real threat: “Although painful and distressing, climate anxiety is rational and does not imply mental illness. Anxiety is an emotion that alerts us to danger, which can cause us to search for more information about the situation and find potential solutions”, added Caroline Hickman’s team in the Lancet paper. This worry and anxiety often promotes pro-environmental values and actions and the support of climate policies, but it can also be associated with psychological distress.

Even though climate anxiety is not considered a disease, exposure to chronic stress increases the risk of developing mental health problems. This is the case particularly in children, young people and other vulnerable individuals who cannot avoid the impact of long-lasting stressors like climate change–related events or the inaction and failures of governments.

Although, it still remains to be established whether climate anxiety triggers mental health problems or whether these “strong feelings of worry about climate change could simply be a manifestation of poor mental health”, as suggested by a paper published in the journal Current Psychology in 2021.

Katariina Salmela-Aro: “Anxiety is high in Europe and it mostly does not correlate with mental health issues, but instead it correlates with pro-environmental behaviour. That means that young people are able to turn [emotions] into action.”

Besides the despair, grief for the environment and sense of doom, climate change can also impair mental health. The reasons for this include the increasing exposure to the social and economic disruptions caused by the loss of living places/land, by the loss of activities and traditions, or by physical conditions, namely rising temperatures, extreme flooding and wildfires. These extreme weather events have been linked to sleep disruption and diminished sleep duration. Sleep disturbance is a common symptom of a wide range of mental health problems.

The cited study led by Charles Adedayo Ogunbode, a researcher at the School of Psychology, University of Nottingham, UK, has shown that the participants who reported negative climate-related emotions were more likely to have insomnia symptoms and self-reported poorer mental health.

Environmental action as an antidote to climate anxiety

Hickman’s and Ogunbode’s teams studied different groups of individuals across more than 25 countries. They asked slightly different questions, but reached the same conclusion: young people are worried about climate change – extremely worried.

The Journal of Environmental Psychology paper stated that “climate anxiety had a significant inverse association with mental wellbeing in 31 out of 32 countries [included in the research]”.

However, it also showed that climate change “had a significant association with pro-environmental behaviour in 24 countries, and with environmental activism in 12 countries”. This means that climate anxiety drives young people to act. ‘In that way it is also positive, it is like a silver lining’, said Katariina Salmela-Aro, who took part in the studies led by Ogunbode.

Nature restoration can also be an effective therapeutic option in children and adolescents’ mental healthcare.

Mala Rao: “The recommended interventions include ensuring that the eco-anxious have access to information on how to contribute to climate action, including connecting with and having the support of like-minded individuals, contributing to greener choices, participating in nature-based activities and spending time in nature.”

Engagement in environmental action can work as an antidote to climate anxiety, but contextual barriers may explain why the relationship between the negative emotion and pro-environmental behaviour varies significantly across countries. Those barriers can range from insufficient knowledge, to financial difficulties or lack of opportunities, and ultimately to political restrictions or social norms.

“The majority of countries in which a significant link was observed between climate anxiety and environmental activism were European, democratic, and relatively affluent”, the study concluded, with the weakest association being found in China. Moreover, countries like Egypt, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Oman, Pakistan and Tanzania did not show a significant positive relationship between climate anxiety and pro-environmental behaviour.

Katariina Salmela-Aro sees it as a positive sign that young people are engaging in pro-environmental actions, but is very critical of the latest protests by the climate activists who glued themselves to art in museums or threw food at paintings. “I don’t think that it is really helping them because this kind of activism can easily be seen in a negative light by society. This doesn’t help the young people, on the contrary, it can have a negative impact”.

Salmela-Aro adds that by participating in these demonstrations, young people are not working to build their resilience or to regulate their negative emotions, which are both skills they need in order to take meaningful climate change action.

Useful links:
Science for children: shaping the future by expanding young minds

Related content:
Mala Rao: ‘The eco-anxious should have access to information on how to contribute to climate action’
Katariina Salmela-Aro: ‘Climate anxiety is like a silver lining, it’s a driving force to do something’

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