Psychology Today states: More than three-quarters of people aged 16 to 25 say that they feel that the future is frightening due to climate change, according to a survey.
These looming threats have led to what experts are calling eco-anxiety or climate anxiety. Both adults and children are experiencing this. In a recent survey of young adults ages 16–25, almost 60 percent said that they felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change. The emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people is of growing concern worldwide to the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimating that up to 20% of children and adolescents may suffer from mental illness (WHO, 2003).
Eco-anxiety isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but a term used to describe negative emotions associated with the perception of climate change. My interest is in psychology and mental health in young people. This has led me to seek the opinions of people working with and for children.
A shift in recent education has seen the upsurge of many Forest School settings. Martha Morgan, Forest School Leader says: “As a society we are seeing a nature deficit. There is a nature withdrawal as more of everyday life involves screens and technology rather than real activities and spending time in nature. We are now aware that less connection (with nature) in the early years appears to remove the brain’s ability to cope as well, with stress and cognitive rejuvenation in adulthood. Nature connectedness, in its own right, is in fact a core psychological need and basic component of wellbeing; not being tuned into nature is detrimental to our lives in terms of happiness and meaning.”
Practical ways to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
From my interviews, I have gathered some ideas that could help young people and adults alike:
- Take a walk outside, without your phone, to completely immerse yourself in nature.
- Filter your social media feed to avoid seeing negative posts, which may increase eco-anxiety.
- Take a break from news programmes.
- Focus on helping the wildlife in your own garden or local area.
- Talk to friends and family about eco-anxieties to reduce stigma around mental wellbeing.
- Validate yours and others worries about the environment, despite eco-anxiety not being a clinical diagnosis.
- Educate young people on the positive impact they can have on the environment without having to make massive changes.
- Advocating for better support for young people with anxiety through volunteering with counselling charities such as Winchester Youth Counselling
Activities for children with adults
Research shows that helping children find things that they can do to improve the situation is a great way to lower their anxiety. Simple ideas for parents and grandparents to help with are:
- Teach your child to compost your houses food waste.
- Start walking to school or park further away and complete your journey on foot or scooter.
- Litter pick in the woods or at the beach.
- Make recycling fun.
- Take the bins out with children and sort glass and paper recycling.
- Pack a green lunchbox and discuss air miles of fruit and veg we eat.
- Start a wormery.
- Plant some bee-friendly flowers.
- Starting recycling or litter picking groups at school.
- Write to local government to petition for more recycling bins or more council left to go wild.
- Give up single-use plastics.
(According to UNEP, around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. Carrying bottles and bags, and utensils at home is one great way to avoid single-use plastics in children’s lunch boxes)
Remember to reflect on both your achievements regularly to help your child celebrate the impact their actions have had. Discussing and normalising feelings is important too. The charity MIND states: Don’t run or hide from emotions: acknowledge and accept them. The more often you do this, the more comfortable you will feel with dealing with them. So celebrate each positive change!
One of the reasons climate change can feel scary is because it affects lots of the things that we love, such as plants and animals. Fantastic David Attenborough programs, such as Blue Planet, can both thrill and scare watchers about the state of the world. Getting out into nature is a great way to connect children and young people with the planet in a positive way and build knowledge about native species and how to care for them.
Outdoor activities, through both play and learning help everyone take the time to notice the wildlife. There is so much research supporting the link between happiness, wellbeing and spending time in nature.
Martha Morgan has lots of enthusiasm about the importance of engaging children in nature, “As Forest School Leader completing nature-based activities within a woodland will allow the children and adults to build the human/ nature relationship, to feel part of nature as they forage, cook, storytell and play within it. To have the time to be content, have time in nature, recognise bird song and identify the flowers at our feet has an incredible impact on wellbeing. To see and recognise the changes within the seasons and be inspired by what we see. Research has shown that outside connection is good for all, ADHD symptoms improved because spending time in nature took away the demand for inhibition and concentration levels increased. Sensory needs are met, improving focus and attention span. Forest School is a very powerful tool. It not only increases the ability and capacity for happiness, at that time, but allows a means for securing happiness. By pushing ourselves from nature we have not only created an environmental crisis but we have also taken away one of our most vital mental health tools.”
No one person is going to solve a massive global issue like climate change but sharing our love of nature and the natural environment, providing opportunities to act positively for the environment and working toward solving the problem are all ways that we can help children feel more empowered.
Hannah, a Science Coordinator at a local primary school, has set up an environmental club to run alongside curriculum learning: “Running an eco-council at my primary school has demonstrated to children, and therefore the wider community that recycling and reusing are ways to do our bit. Each term we are collecting different items that can be recycled or reused. So far, we’ve collected crisp packets, make up containers, wellies and batteries! The older children act as councillors for each class to help them to remember to recycle paper and switch off lights and charging devices. They are only little steps, but everyone feels positive about them. It helps instil group responsibility and a sense of hope.”
Hannah’s views have adjusted, as her experience of mental wellbeing has changed: “When I first started teaching science and environmental topics to young children some years ago, I thought it was my duty to tell children what they should be doing for the environment. Looking back, I realise it was because I was feeling a bit desperate from my own Climate Anxiety. As I became more aware of the importance of advocating for wellbeing, I began to realise how easy (and wrong!!) it is to give children the message that it’s their job to change the world.
I’m very careful now to make sure children understand we all have a role to play and it’s not just the younger generation’s responsibility to sort out the mess adults have made. I feel this can contribute to the anxiety and worry children have about environmental problems. Factual information is important to give young people context and understanding but solution-based practical changes, that even a little person can make, helps children feel empowered and motivated rather than despondent and hopeless. Personally, I have found sharing my nature knowledge and love for outdoor learning has helped build children’s curiosity and stewardship of the natural world. I feel good about helping them become custodians of nature. “
Hannah’s message is to “try to tell the children that we don’t have to be individually responsible for saving the planet, but little changes make a difference.” She says, “I’m often talking about my wooden toothbrush and suggesting polite ways they can pass on their message and influence others!”
I, myself volunteer with Winchester Youth Counselling charity, and we have been working with our new patron Chris Packham to highlight the importance of nature in therapy. On 1st December Chris Packham is leading a talk on the connection between immersion in a natural environment and improving mental health. He is presenting a call to action for society to understand the true value of the natural world around us. The 2-year waiting time for children’s and adolescents’ mental health services makes it difficult for young people to receive help for any climate change anxiety they may have. However, due to the new understanding of the connection between nature and mental wellbeing (highlighted by Chris Packham) children and adults alike can access free therapy by simply stepping outside their doors and spending time in the countryside. For these reasons the charity is developing Nature Therapy and Walk and Talk Therapy programmes over the coming year, which I can highly recommend as manageable ways to overcome eco-anxiety, whilst helping the environment, one positive change at a time.