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As we reflect on the events of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), Dr Fiona Pienaar, our Senior Clinical Advisor, explores the research on the relationship between climate change and mental health and offers advice for young people who may be experiencing worry, anxiety and frustration as a result of the ecological crisis.

As the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow draws to a close, it seems both appropriate and important to reflect on the potential impact of the ecological crisis on mental health.

There has been extensive media coverage over the past two weeks of COP26 about the challenges the world is facing with regard to climate change. We know that the sense of urgency to turn the tide on the already-devastating outcomes of rising global temperatures is increasing and, with this, comes growing awareness of the impact of it on people’s mental health - and, in particular, on young people.

A recent article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) posits that, although the Covid-19 pandemic has been, and will continue to be, devastating for many adolescents, the climate crisis dwarfs the pandemic in its scale and implications.

Furthermore, a 2021 briefing paper and international literature review from Imperial College London concludes that climate change is negatively affecting the mental health and emotional wellbeing of people around the world. The literature shows a clear link between increased temperatures and the number of suicides, severe distress following extreme weather events, and an exacerbation of mental distress, particularly among young people.

While some may think that we have only recently started to explore and acknowledge the relationship between climate change and mental health, in fact researchers have been studying and talking about this phenomenon for many years and there is substantial evidence of the impact on mental health. A quick search on Google Scholar reveals the depth of research and commentary on this subject.

Perhaps it is only now that people are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges we are facing because they are either directly impacted or there is a growing realisation that we are all ultimately affected by ecological change. At the same time, the voices of the public are becoming louder, extorting governments and organisations to take action, and perhaps the connection between climate change and mental health is starting to become more obvious.

This is not to say that we should over-pathologise eco-anxiety (anxiety or worry about evident and threatening problems associated with climate change and its effects) but rather recognise that ‘anxiety is a healthy reaction to climate change and one that can be fruitfully channeled into action’ (Benoit et al, 2021).

Young people particularly appear to be ahead of the game in terms of awareness, a sense of the need for rapid action, and recognising the emotional impact on their mental health. It should not surprise us that we are seeing more and more young climate activists standing up and giving voice to their frustrations, powerlessness, anger, frustration, anxiety and distress. They are, after all, the most likely to be impacted in the long-term.

In a recent scientific study from a collective of global organisations, including the University of Bath, University of East Anglia and the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25 from 10 different countries, including the UK, were surveyed about their thoughts and feelings about climate change.

In this study, the largest of its kind, 59% of young people said they are worried about climate change, 55% feel they will have fewer opportunities than their parents, and nearly half feel distressed about the climate in a way that affects their daily lives and functioning. More than half of young people surveyed have felt afraid, sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and/or guilty about climate change, while almost half have felt ignored or dismissed when they talk to other people about climate change. What’s more, 72% of young people in the UK are frightened about the future.

A UNICEF fact sheet emerging from COP positions the climate crisis as a child rights crisis, posing a major threat to children and young people’s health, nutrition, education, development, survival and future potential, with 1 billion children at extremely high risk.

Knowing that children and young people may be disproportionately affected by climate change highlights the critical need to provide them with the mental health support they need, the sense of safety to discuss their concerns with their families and the opportunity to find like-minded communities. Young people have been described as ‘agents of change, our future leaders, and most likely to succeed in improving planetary health’ (Wu et al, 2020).

So how can young people manage climate change-related worry, anxiety, frustration, powerlessness or any other emotions and thoughts they may be experiencing?

Advice for young people:

Support for families:

Families have been identified as ‘accessible and safe places’ to explore emotions and thoughts about ecological change, ‘building hope together through meaningful goal-directed activities’ (Cunsolo, et al, 2021).

If you are a parent or caregiver, communicating with children and young people about climate change in a balanced and thoughtful way, taking their age and development into consideration, could help to alleviate any anxiety they are feeling.

Don’t avoid talking to your children about the situation or confronting difficult truths. Help them process distressing thoughts and emotions. If they are worried about climate change and you dismiss it, that leaves them with nowhere to process their anxiety. Inform yourself so that you can have these conversations. You might find this resource helpful and we have further advice here.

Importantly, if you have concerns about your wellbeing, or that of your child, in relation to climate change, speak to your doctor or a mental health professional, or for 'in the moment' mental health support text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258 to start a conversation with a trained volunteer 24/7.