Michael Samuel MBE
Published 2 months ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Brady Knoll
Whilst we celebrate World Mental Health Day, we also need to be realistic about the relationship between our natural environment and mental wellbeing — and find
proactive ways to protect both.
Today is World Mental Health
Day; and this year’s
theme is ‘mental health is a universal human right.’ While it’s brilliant that
we recognise this, it’s also worth noting that it was only last year that the
United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution
a healthy environment and a stable climate as human rights, as well. Our natural
world and mental health are closely linked — and so, as we celebrate mental
health being a human right, let’s remember that having a livable, breathable
planet is not just a necessity for our environment but for our mental wellbeing.
Environmental damage can provoke feelings of anxiety, anger, fear, grief, stress
and hopelessness and, in the contemporary context of rising temperatures,
extreme weather events and mass deforestation, climate anxiety is on the rise.
As Chair of Anna Freud, a children’s mental health
charity, I hear a lot about the impacts that the negative emotions triggered by
global warming are having on young people.
According to The Lancet Planetary Health research, as many as 60
percent of young people feel very or extremely worried about climate change; and
45 percent say these feelings negatively affect their daily lives. This anxiety
often stems from feelings of hopelessness in the face of the climate crisis,
which is particularly concerning given that things are only set to get worse as
we stray further from our climate targets.
So, what can we do about it?
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First and foremost, we need to help young people have a positive and enduring
relationship with their natural environment. The 2021 Children’s People and Nature Survey for England
found that the vast majority of children agreed that being in nature made them
very happy; but it also showed that they spend less time
as they get older. This needs to change.
Being in nature offers a huge array of benefits for health and wellbeing, and
this has been demonstrated through programmes such as Green Social
(GSP) — an approach championed by experts across the globe, which helps
people improve their mental health by engaging in nature-based activities.
The UK government’s two-year GSP Programme was launched in 2021 at seven
sites in England; and the interim findings have already shown improvements
in mental health and wellbeing, as well as strong engagement within communities
experiencing high levels of social inequalities. It’s also important to note
that these benefits are not just for people living in rural areas but for those
— who can access natural spaces through public parks, allotments or community
Secondly, enabling young people to understand climate change can help to address
some of their anxieties around it. The government recently announced its
strategy to become the world-leading education sector in sustainability and
climate change by 2030. This is particularly encouraging as one of its core aims
is to prepare all young people for a world impacted by climate change through
learning and practical experience. Young people want solutions-focused climate
change education, opportunities to take climate action, and for mental health to
be integrated into learning about the climate crisis.
Knowledge is power and, in this case, understanding climate change can be
empowering for those who feel helpless to its
There is high demand for better education around climate change from both
students and teachers who often feel that they are not teaching about the
ecological crisis in a meaningful and relevant way. By equipping teachers with
the right tools, we can take a proactive approach to supporting our children’s
Finally, we need to emphasise to young people that, even though climate change
is a monumental challenge, their actions can help to make a difference.
Establishing a connection between young people and
is key to reducing their climate anxieties; but so is encouraging them to do
their part to protect it — and this kind of action can take many forms. From
campaigning to joining conservation activity
and anything in between, the key is finding ways to place young people in
positions of agency and encouraging them to get involved in the solution rather
than remaining passive observers.
Speaking personally, I have always loved the outdoors. To me, nature is a balm —
I find just walking and observing nature to be particularly soothing in
stressful times. In terms of how I like to contribute, something I have enjoyed
doing since I was young is planting
of all shapes and sizes. There is something very special about planting a tree
and seeing it grow and blossom. If we can inspire the next generation by
encouraging the planting of trees and other positive, tangible activities, we
will not only benefit the environment but strengthen young people’s mental
Ultimately, we need to help children and young people not by doing things for
them, but by changing the systems around them to offer greater opportunities for
action. We are in charge of the systems they live within; being imaginative
about how to make them more active within these systems will boost their mental
health and enforce their unassailable right for a safe, living world.
So, whilst we celebrate World Mental Health Day, we also need to be realistic
about the relationship between our natural environment and mental wellbeing —
and find proactive ways to protect both.
By encouraging children’s interaction with
providing meaningful opportunities for them to be a part of solution-focused
activities and transforming climate-based
to ensure it sits within a whole-school approach to mental health, we can help
to proactively address the escalating climate anxiety in young people.
Published Oct 10, 2023 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Michael is Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families. He has steered the growth of the charity, cementing its position as the leading children's charity dedicated to providing training and support for child mental health services.
He is Chair of Full Fact, as well as being Co-Founder and Chair of Civic, a not-for-profit which aims to support communities and organisation to accelerate impact.
He is also Chair of the Somerset Community Foundation, a Trustee of Helpforce and Chair and Trustee of five family charities.
In business, after training as a chartered accountant, he built up Mayborn Group, specialising in baby products, over the course of three decades. He has been Chairman of the outdoor clothing company, Muddy Puddles since 2011, and is Chairman of Murex Energy (renewable energy).