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Nurturing Mental Health in a Climate-Changing World:
Another Critical Challenge to Face Together

As with other forms of anxiety, climate anxiety must be navigated with great care; and it is essential that the younger generation have allies around them when facing such an enormous challenge as climate change.

This week we are marking Mental-Health Awareness Week, the theme of which is anxiety — which has become prevalent across society, particularly for young people.

Some have described the UK as an “anxious nation.” Studies suggest that more than 8 million people in the UK are experiencing anxiety at any given time. It affects many children and young people. The last few years have seen anxiety and other mental-health conditions escalate in children and young people. Whereas one in eight children suffered from a mental-health illness pre-pandemic, this has now increased to one in six.

One of the growing elements of anxiety is climate anxiety. This amounts to distress about climate change, its impacts on the landscape and human existence, and what might happen if action is not taken in time to avert disaster. It can manifest as chronic fear of environmental collapse and intrusive thoughts about the long-term future of humanity.

The ONS has reported that, behind the cost-of-living crisis, climate change is the second biggest concern facing adults in the UK — with 74 percent feeling worried about climate change to some extent.

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It is important, however, to understand that there are essential differences between worrying about climate change and having climate anxiety. Worry is often a motivator: If you are worried about something, it can prompt you to take action to try and resolve it. Anxiety is more extreme, overwhelming and, at times, debilitating. Its effects range from a racing heart and shortness of breath to being unable to maintain social relationships or function in your daily life at work or school.

Climate anxiety affects people of all ages and walks of life, but its impacts are not even. It is felt most acutely by those living on the frontline of climate-related disasters and those who feel they have the most to lose in the event of long-term environmental catastrophe. As such, in the UK, climate anxiety disproportionately affects children and young people who are worried about the state of the world they will inherit.

Recent research has revealed that climate change is causing widespread, deeply felt anxiety among young people in the UK. More than 50 percent of 16- to 25-year-olds interviewed by the University of Bath reported that they felt anxious, powerless and guilty about climate change. Similarly, the youth non-profit organisation Force of Nature found that more than 70 percent of young people feel hopeless in the face of the climate crisis and as many as 56 percent think that humanity is doomed.

As Chair of the Anna Freud Centre, a children’s mental-health charity, I have witnessed the extent to which the climate crisis impacts young people’s mental health. As with other forms of anxiety, climate anxiety must be navigated with great care; and it is essential that the younger generation have allies around them when facing such an enormous challenge as climate change.

The Princess of Wales, our Centre’s Royal Patron, has highlighted that mental health in the early years is a crucial determinant of life prospects. So, now more than ever, it is important to ensure that children and the people that care for them don’t try to take on these challenges in isolation. The first step in helping children and young people cope with climate anxiety is being open and available to talk about their concerns with them. Climate change is a very real and pressing issue; so, it can be counterproductive to try and minimise a young person’s fears about it as this may lead them to internalise their anxieties. Instead, talking about the issue with them in an age-appropriate way and validating their feelings is crucial.

Only 26 percent of the young people surveyed by Force for Nature felt that they knew how to contribute to solving the climate crisis; and the sense of helplessness that may be felt by the remaining 74 percent can be very dangerous. Therefore, it is important to encourage young people to try and find manageable solutions and productive ways of addressing their emotions. Rather than always offering reassurance, try responding to their questions with another question. For example, ‘I know you are worried about plastic pollution; so, what can we do to minimise our own plastic use?’ This can help break what may seem like a larger problem down into smaller, more manageable pieces that have more easily identifiable solutions.

Ultimately, climate change and its impacts can feel overwhelming for anyone; so, it is essential that no one tries to bear this burden alone. By demonstrating that you understand a young person’s concerns and are available to discuss them, you can help them alleviate their worries and find out what their personal contribution looks like.

Ongoing issues such as the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis and war in Ukraine already provide plenty of daily anxiety. But as our newsfeeds are increasingly inundated with stories about environmental and climate-related disasters, the lesser-known climate anxiety should be openly discussed and addressed.