Understandably, the planet's prognosis is a concern that many of us share, but it also can become a persistent worry, which has been termed eco-anxiety. Sarah Niblock, chief executive of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), writes that therapists are increasingly encountering young people fearing the predicted future state of the environment. While their concerns may be justified, the overemphasise of negative climate change news can trigger distress and leave out the more optimistic stories, which suggest that a catastrophic future is not inevitable.
Through hyper-connectivity, the unfolding environmental catastrophe is now presented to us constantly through the 24/7 news cycle straight to our hand-held devices.
While it is young people worldwide who are leading the charge on climate action – because they are only too aware of what will happen if they don't – what is this awareness doing to their mental health?
A survey found 40% of 16–24-year-olds feel ‘overwhelmed’ by climate change in the UK. This echoes another small commissioned US survey revealing 72% of 18-34 year-olds reported negative news stories about the environment sometimes impact their emotional wellbeing.
We need urgent action on both mitigating climate change and supporting children and young people, in particular, to adapt to its impacts. With existing mental health services stretched beyond capacity, UK Council for Psychotherapy is calling on the government to utilise the thousands of highly trained, regulated professionals who are ready to start this work today.
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How could more responsible reporting help children develop resilience and be part of the resistance to climate change?
It’s our belief that we must acknowledge and build children and young people’s agency and engagement, which also builds resiliency and hope.
Children may experience the strongest effects, and that’s why constant exposure to negative media messages concerns us. It’s imprinted in our primal psyche that alarming or threatening facts will resonate more powerfully – and therefore stick in the mind.
Children are already more vulnerable to the effects of the direct experience of climate change. On average, they have stronger responses to extreme weather events, such as PTSD, depression, sleep disorders, partly due to their greater dependence on adult family members and social support networks that might be disrupted by the event.
Of particular concern is the possibility for long-term and/or permanent effects of early experiences of trauma, which can impair children's ability to regulate their own emotions and can lead to learning or behavioural problems. In addition, early stress can also increase the risk of mental health problems later in life.
Covid-19 has made really clear, for young people especially, life is digital by default. Children’s screen time averages nine hours per day during lockdown, which is nearly double the average prior to Covid-19. A study by Ofcom has found that children were lacking structure and routine and were instead spending a significant amount of time online, often unsupervised.
In the developed world, few studies address how to support young people in the face of their feelings regarding climate change. Listening and providing opportunities for active engagement are among the ways adults can help young people cope and build a sense of efficacy and a capacity to tackle the crisis and adapt to climate impacts.
Trying to balance one piece of negative news with three pieces of positive news can also help. Having some examples of good climate-related news ready – for example, successful conservation projects – can empower young people to take active steps with others, reversing the sense of helplessness.
As well as working with children and young people, psychological professionals have much expertise to offer journalists and editors on how young people can adapt.
Adapting may seem on the surface to be a cop-out, akin to an acceptance that it's too late, but that's not the case. Rather than focussing on political impasse or intractable issues, the bread and butter of much reporting, stories about urban renewal, conservation, innovation, or economic development resonate much more positively.
Psychological professionals are the very best sources for understanding resistances and barriers to action—all of which can spur children and young people to foster a sense of purpose and hope.
The climate change crisis raises questions about how professionals committed to the next generation's wellbeing should respond—business as usual is no longer an option, and many valuable ways exist to help ensure that children can thrive on a liveable planet.