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Dr Fiona Pienaar is Senior Clinical Advisor at Mental Health Innovations. In this blog she discusses the mental health issues arising as a result of climate change and what we can do to support those who are affected by it.

The challenge of climate change

This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness week is ‘nature and wellbeing’, and while we may know that getting in touch with the great outdoors is ‘good for us’, there is also increasing awareness of the environmental changes happening around the globe.

Climate change has been described as ‘one of the great challenges of our time’, with children and young people particularly aware, concerned and vulnerable (Clayton, 2018).

Not surprisingly, the challenges associated with climate change, our thoughts and beliefs about the topic and the emotions this may evoke, also have the potential to affect our mental health and welling and there are some who struggle more than others.


The impact of climate change on mental health:

It is normal and quite understandable to worry about environmental issues and we don’t want to pathologise anyone who is understandably and reasonably worried about environmental and climate changes. After all, this can indicate that people have awareness about the situation and may, as a consequence, take some personal action to contribute to positive solutions.

Professionals and researchers have identified and described a range of reactions people might have in response to climate change.

These have been termed ‘psychoterratic syndromes’ (emotions people feel in relation to the earth), and although, importantly, the terminology does not describe formal psychiatric syndromes, they do reveal the levels at which mental health may be impacted, and perhaps give us some more awareness about how we as individuals, or others, may struggle.

Importantly, they suggest that young people may be more susceptible to these reactions than other age groups:

  • Eco-anxiety: anxiety or worry about evident and threatening problems associated with climate change and its effects
  • Eco-paralysis: the complicated emotions associated with feeling unable to take any effective action to moderate climate change challenges
  • Solastalgia: the homesickness you have while still at home because the environment that you know is becoming unrecognisable; the removal of solace as your known environment changes (Hayes, et al, 2018; Palinkas & Wong, 2020; Panu, 2020)

Who is likely to experience eco-anxiety?

In a Royal College of Psychiatrists survey (September, 2020) of child and adolescent psychiatrists working in the NHS, almost 60% of the respondents said they had seen a patient who was ‘distressed about environmental and ecological issues’ in the past year (Watts & Campbell, 2020).

Children, adolescents and young adults seem particularly concerned about, and vulnerable to the mental health impacts of climate change and their futures (Clayton, 2020).

This has been variously attributed to younger people being more likely to be thinking about and planning for their future and by association, worrying about that future and the world they will inherit; that there is far more focus on the environment and climate in education today, and the younger generation have more time to think about societal issues than older adults.

Eco-anxiety might also be exacerbated as children and adolescents have less control over their lives and might perceive themselves as not able to contribute positive solutions.

Data from the Shout 85258 text service run by MHI shows that:

  • 65% of people who contact the service are aged 25 and under, with anxiety being cited in more than a third of conversations (32%)
  • Anticipation and fear of future events have been shown to be significant triggers in people reaching out to the service for support
  • Conversation analysis showed a general theme of climate change giving a feeling of responsibility to texters to fix the world, as well as a feeling of hopelessness around this too. Worries for the future and a feeling that the world is failing were also concerns mentioned by texters.

A number of global studies and surveys have identified that most children and young people know something about the impact of climate change (Burke, et al, 2018), and that, while they may be keen to talk about the topic and theory accompanying emotions, sometimes adults struggle to know how to address the topic (Herbst, 2020).

This suggests that readily-available and carefully curated resources that support adults to have these conversations with children and young people are important (see our resources below for some ideas).

What can we do to support young people’s mental wellbeing around climate change?

We know that children and young people in particular are concerned about climate change and the world they will inherit. Awareness on the part of the adults in their lives, ensuring that they are not overwhelmed by their thoughts and emotions, is important.

  1. Find time to read trusted sources of information and good resources about climate change and potential associated concerns and impacts
  2. Provide opportunities to discuss issues that may be worrying children and young people. Don’t overwhelm them with information
  3. Listen to children and young people, and indeed adults, when they express their concerns, so that they feel validated and understood. Just talking about something can alleviate stress and anxiety
  4. Assist them in developing awareness, without overwhelming them, and promoting life-skills they can utilise to help them develop resilience. Encourage them to be mindful of the places in which they live, play and work and to be respectful of nature, people and other species

Importantly, look after your own mental health and wellbeing, don't overwhelm yourself with information, keep a balance between any concerns you may have personally about climate change and any actions you decide to take, and seek support if you find you are struggling. You can visit or text SHOUT to 85258 for in the moment support.

These tips are available to download and share from Shout 85258.

Further information

If you would like some further guidance around supporting and talking to children and young people about climate change:

  • Royal College of Psychiatrists

Eco distress: for parents and carers

  • Yale University, School of the Environment, The Yale Centre for Environment Communication: How to talk to kids about climate change:

  • Harvard University, T H Chan School of Public Health: Climate change and mental health (this article explains how climate change can impact on your child’s mental health and suggests some steps adults can take to support children in a changing climate

Report on UK adult views:

  • British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) report on Mental Health impact of Climate Change with UK adults (October, 2020)

A list of 9 achievable ways adults can personally make a difference - suggestions from the climate change experts at the Grantham institute, Imperial College

Australian Psychological Association - various resources

Article references:

Burke, S.E.L., Sanson, A.V., and Van Hoorn, J. (2018). The psychological effects of climate change on children, Child and Family Disaster Psychiatry, 20:35.

Clayton, S. (2020). Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 24.

Hayes, K., Blashki, G., Wiseman, J., Burke, S, and Reifels, L. (2018). Climate change and mental health: risks, impacts and priority actions, International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 12:28.

Herbst, E. (2020). Building resilience to climate change catastrophe in children and adolescents: An urgent need, Psychiatric News, APA,

Palinkas, L.A., and Wong, M. (2020). Global climate change and mental health, Current opinion in Psychology, 32, 12-16.

Panu, P. (2020). Anxiety and the Ecological Crisis: An Analysis of Eco-Anxiety and Climate Anxiety, Sustainability, 23rd September, 2020.

Watts, J., and Campbell, D. (2020). Half of child psychiatrists surveyed say patients have environment anxiety, The Guardian, Friday 20, 2020.