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Sanjay Khanna, Strategic Advisor and Foresight Expert, NOW Partners, former Resident Futurist, Massey College, University of Toronto
The all-important United Nations climate conference concluded in Glasgow this past weekend with many key negotiators from a generation that will be the least affected by its impacts. Given the potentially unachievable conference pledges to reduce carbon emissions to the extent needed to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, there remain more questions than answers. For youth, as well as those who care for and teach them, this uncertainty is likely to heighten their fears and worries about the future of the environment, the climate, and themselves.
The mental health impacts of climate change are increasingly being studied. Eco-anxiety, climate distress, climate change anxiety, or climate anxiety is mental distress associated with worsening environmental, ecological, or climate conditions. Its manifestations in youth can include emotions such as sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, powerlessness, guilt, and indifference, which can contribute to a host of impacts including panic attacks, insomnia, and obsessive thinking.
My own interest in eco-anxiety started around 2009, when I organized one of the world’s first conferences on the emerging psychological, social, and cultural impacts of climate change. As I researched this, I learned both anecdotally and from experts that climate anxiety would only grow as a global issue as climate impacts increased. To raise awareness among clinicians, I have given Grand Rounds presentations on trends related to climate change and mental health for Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and for University Health Network’s Centre for Mental Health.
In January 2021, Germany’s renowned Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research stated that the mental health impact of the climate crisis is among the Top 10 Insights in the field of climate science in 2020. This September, Nature magazine reported on a landmark study that “asked 10,000 young people in 10 countries how they felt about climate change and government responses to it.” The youth surveyed ranged in age from 16 to 25 years old. Nearly 60% said they felt “very worried” or “extremely worried,” and 45% said their feelings affected their daily lives. In Portugal, a high-income country hit by severe wildfires, 65% of those surveyed felt very worried or extremely worried.
Youth are worried about negative present and near-term impacts on their communities. They are alarmed by future life circumstances they and their friends will live through because of environmental and climate change that promises to yield profound losses to nature and society. In my talks to children and young people, particularly since the mid-2000s, I have noticed an increasing sense of anxiety and despair about what our societies have not done to mitigate climate change and to adapt to its effects. Conversely, I’ve observed that among youth who collaborate with others to understand and address the climate crisis, there is a sense of hope in co-learning, teamwork, and ingenuity, which is rooted in fundamental values of equity and social cohesion. This, in turn, creates a potentially powerful source of emotional resilience.
So, how can you as a parent or caregiver engage on eco-anxiety and climate change with youth? Starting the conversation about eco-anxiety can be difficult for adults, who may have their own fears and guilty feelings about the world which will be left for the next generation. Typically, I ask parents, teachers, and caregivers to learn about the climate crisis with youth, and to explore what issues come up for you and your youth when you do so. Do they express worry? Are they interested in solutions? Are they aware of what is being done in your community to address environmental and climate issues? Do they need help, professional or otherwise, to cope with their distress if they’re experiencing it?
Another thing to do is to prepare locally for extreme weather events, reduce consumption and/or carbon footprints, and participate in community resilience building, from food security to community gardening and ecological restoration initiatives. In short, to do what can be done that is positive, no matter what is happening elsewhere.
Developing a sense of personal efficacy helps youth face their eco-anxiety, depression, or other mental health issue associated with, or triggered by, real or anticipated impacts of environmental and climate changes. Learning and acting together, based on climate science and efforts that can be made to improve community health in the face of environmental and climate crises, is a source of hope for children and youth throughout Canada—and around the world—since all climate actions rooted in respect for others’ health are inherently hopeful and meaningful.