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Mental Health Is a Universal Human Right:
How to Protect That in Our Climate-Changing World

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 declaring 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?

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 outdoors 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 Prescribing (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 in cities, too — who can access natural spaces through public parks, allotments or community gardens.

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 effects. 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 mental health.

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 nature 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 groups 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 trees 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 health.

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 nature, providing meaningful opportunities for them to be a part of solution-focused activities and transforming climate-based education 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.

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