The scale of climate change has led to an increase in reports of “eco-anxiety”, particularly among children and teenagers, health experts have said.
Images of smoke billowing over the burning Amazon rainforest or Australian bush have led to more people reporting anxiety, helplessness, guilt or anger over climate change, according to psychologists and psychiatrists.
This has been particularly acute for children and young people, according to mental health practitioners, who said they were getting more requests for help from schools.
Eco-anxiety does not generally require therapy or medication but can be addressed through action, experts said, by switching to a more eco-friendly lifestyle or joining activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion.
Susan Clayton, a fellow of the Society for Environmental, Population and Conservation Psychology in the United States, said: “Fear or worry and grief are the principal emotions. For some people there may be guilt or anger. There seems to be more of this anxiety among young people and some feel angry at, or betrayed by, the adults who have let them down.”
Dr Louise Theodosiou, a consultant psychiatrist and spokeswoman for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “It’s something that I’m seeing in my clinic. A number of children were very upset by the fires in the Amazon. These images are unsettling but young people do feel they can do something about this. A lot of young people have spoken to me about Greta Thunberg.”
“Some feel angry at, or betrayed by, the adults who have let them down.”
Caroline Hickman, a teaching fellow at the University of Bath and a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, said eco-anxiety had “increased massively” in the past year. “We’ve been talking to teachers and headteachers about how to help children and young people with this anxiety.”
She said young people were “very concerned and empathetic about the plight of other species”, adding: “They mention being concerned for their future children or grandchildren.”
Ms Hickman said some children had reported waking with nightmares and said: “Parents can’t just say ‘everything will be all right’ as it won’t be. So you need to talk about the reality of what is going on but without traumatising them or leaving them feeling there is nothing they can do.”
She called anxiety an “emotionally healthy” response to climate change as it shows awareness of the problem.
Rather than treating eco-anxiety as something irrational, it can be “the first step towards change”, said Hilda Burke, a member of the UK Council for Psychotherapy. “This could be action in your personal life that spurs you on to be more conscious about your own behaviour or it could spur you on to get involved in a movement.”
Tim Gordon, 25, a marine biologist at the University of Exeter, said he had shed tears into his mask while diving around devastated coral reefs.
He said: “Maybe there’s a way we can take this environmental grief, process it and understand it as a rational response to great loss, but also use it as inspiration and motivation to try to come up with creative solutions for the future.”
Behind the Story
Lorna Greenwood’s two children Ada and Jacob, aged 2 and six months, attended their first Extinction Rebellion protests months before they were born.
During both her pregnancies, Ms Greenwood, 33, from south London, found herself struck by anxiety over the world that she was bringing her children into.
“It was overwhelming and obsessive fear,” she said, “imagining the darkest thoughts: will I be able to feed my children, will I see them grow up? As a parent you always think about how you will protect your children and what will come next for them. It’s primal.”
She added: “I had always worried about environmental issues. People would say you were irrational. Within a month of having this fear, I got involved in Extinction Rebellion and put myself in a position where I could have been arrested, even though I was six months pregnant.
“One of the main reasons why a lot of parents get involved is when their children start getting eco-anxiety and they don’t know how to respond.”