With the rising awareness of climate change and its impact on lives around the globe, young people are understandably questioning political leaders’ response to the crisis. Given that children and young people are fully aware that the climate issues neglected by older generations become problems for them to address in their adult lives, climate anxiety is a growing phenomenon. As National Geographic highlighted in this article Helping kids deal with climate anxiety | National Geographic, “2020 was a rough year for our planet. It was the second hottest year on record, Australian bush fires wiped out billions of animals, the strongest super typhoon in history slammed into the Philippines, and the United States set a new record for billion-dollar natural disasters.” These events do not go unnoticed.
The British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently wrote of growing climate anxiety posing “a significant threat to individuals and society”. In a report posted in October 2021, the journal stated that, “The climate crisis is taking an increasing toll on the mental health of children and young people; leaders must act now to create a path to a happier and healthier future.”
Chronic fear of “environmental doom” is potentially highly damaging to young people – no one could deny that. And yet a 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England found that more than half (57%) are seeing children and young people who are distressed about the climate crisis.
Supporting young people through their concerns about climate change will become ever more urgent as time passes, unless there is swift and effective global action. As the BMJ reported, “These findings also offer insights into how young people’s emotions are linked with their feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults… Governments are seen as failing to respond adequately, leaving young people with “no future” and “humanity doomed”.”
Colleges clearly play an important role in the way young people manage feelings and fears about climate change. From the education perspective we can ensure that they are equipped with the knowledge they need in order to understand the facts and the potential measures to address specific issues. But we also need to be clued up on emotional support for what can become existential angst. These ideas may help:
It’s not unusual
Climate anxiety in young people is not rare. Helping them to understand that they are not alone and that there are others who share their concerns can be reassuring if positive action such as joining an action group follows. Help young people to find others in their locality who share their concerns and who want to find out more about the actions they can take.
Focus on action rather than fear
Young people may be fearful, and they may even displace that fear (so it’s always worth probing generalized distress to see if you can drill down into what, exactly, the problem may be). But taking action, whether that is in the form of learning more about the issues, joining a local action group, selecting a particular focus for attention, or simply starting up a discussion group in your school, will almost certainly go towards easing that distress.
Build connections to the natural world
Spend as much time as possible in nature with the young people you teach. Not only is this proven to help keep people mentally healthy, but it forms a foundation for stewardship – for taking care – that may positively influence their choices throughout life.
Empower through knowledge and solutions on a local level
Help young people to explore the impact of climate change on a local level. Education for sustainable development should be woven through the curriculum of every college so there will be opportunities to do this. Seemingly intractable problems can have solutions. What is working in your area? What are the good news stories? What action is being taken?
Invest in mental health
The negative impact on long-term mental health of stressors in youth are well documented. Our responsibilities do not end with education. As the Lancet concluded in its comment on Climate anxiety in young people: a call to action - The Lancet Planetary Health, “There has never been such a large population of young people globally, nor do we anticipate any reversal of the impacts of climate change. Young people are agents of change, our future leaders, and most likely to succeed in improving planetary health. Thus, making investments to improve their mental health and wellbeing will provide dividends now and in the future.” Investment in mental health is vital.
Ultimately, it’s a positive sign that young people are concerned about their surroundings and the implications of climate change, but when that concern leads to anxiety which negatively impacts their lives, we have to act fast. Research recently published by the University of Bath, A global survey of climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change — the University of Bath's research portal, argues that climate change and dissatisfaction with government responses are “psychological stressors that threaten health and wellbeing”. While we await more research on the emotional impact on young people, making climate anxiety a focus of college wellbeing programmes seems wise.
For more information…
- Get inspired: schools responding to the climate change challenge: A blog from the DfE.
- Humans & Hope » Richard Docwra: A podcast on climate change.
- Climate anxiety: Survey for BBC Newsround shows children losing sleep over climate change and the environment - CBBC Newsround
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.