‘Overwhelming and terrifying’: the rise of climate anxiety

Experts concerned young people’s mental health particularly hit by reality of the climate crisis

Clover Hogan
 Clover Hogan grew up in Australia and said she was heartbroken when she heard about the number of animals killed by recent bushfires. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Over the past few weeks Clover Hogan has found herself crying during the day and waking up at night gripped by panic. The 20-year-old, who now lives in London, grew up in Queensland, Australia, cheekbyjowl with the country’s wildlife, fishing frogs out of the toilet and dodging snakes hanging from the ceiling.

The bushfires ravaging her homeland over the past few weeks have taken their toll. “I’ve found myself bursting into tears … just seeing the absolutely harrowing images of what’s happening in Australia – it is overwhelming and terrifying.”

Hogan said her lowest point came when she heard about the death of half a billion animals incinerated as the fires swept through the bush. “That was the moment where I felt my heart cleave into two pieces. I felt absolutely distraught.”

The physical impact of the climate crisis is impossible to ignore, but experts are becoming increasingly concerned about another, less obvious consequence of the escalating emergency – the strain it is putting on people’s mental wellbeing, especially the young.

Psychologists warn that the impact can be debilitating for the growing number of people overwhelmed by the scientific reality of ecological breakdown and for those who have lived through traumatic climate events, often on the climate frontline in the global south..

Until two years ago Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford, had spent his career treating common mental health difficulties including anxiety, depression and trauma. Then something new started to happen. Climate scientists and researchers working in Oxford began to approach him asking for help.

“These were people who were essentially facing a barrage of negative information and downward trends in their work … and the more they engaged with the issue, the more they realised what needed to be done – and the more they felt that was bigger than their capacity to enact meaningful change,” he said. “The consequences of this can be pretty dire – anxiety, burnout and a sort of professional paralysis.”

Kennedy-Williams began to research the topic and realised it was not just scientists and researchers who were suffering. “There is a huge need among parents, for instance, who are asking for support on how to talk to their kids about this.”

When Kennedy-Williams began focusing on young people he assumed most would be older teenagers or at least have started secondary school. But he soon discovered worrying levels of environment-related stress and anxiety in much younger children.

“What I was most surprised by is how young the awareness and anxiety starts. My own daughter was just six when she came to me and said: ‘Daddy, are we winning the war against climate change?’ and I was just flummoxed by that question in the moment. It really showed me the importance as a parent of being prepared for the conversation, so we can respond in a helpful way.”

He says there is no way to completely shield young people from the reality of the climate crisis, and argues that would be counterproductive even if it were possible. Rather, parents should talk to their children about their concerns and help them feel empowered to take action – however small – that can make a difference.

A key moment for Kennedy-Williams came with the realisation that tackling “climate anxiety” and tackling the climate crisis were intrinsically linked.

“The positive thing from our perspective as psychologists is that we soon realised the cure to climate anxiety is the same as the cure for climate change – action. It is about getting out and doing something that helps.

“Record and celebrate the changes you make. Nobody is too small. Make connections with other people and at the same time realise that you are not going to cure this problem on your own. This

This certainly resonates with Hogan, who has set up Force of Nature, an initiative aimed at helping young people realise their potential to create change.

Hogan’s group aims to target people aged 11-24 with a crash course in the climate crisis that helps them navigate their anxiety and realise their potential to get involved, take action and make a stand.

“This is only the beginning,” said Hogan. “We’re going to see massive, massive widespread climate crisis in every country around the world, so it’s about developing the emotional resilience to carry on, but in a way that ignites really dramatic individual initiative.”

Beyond climate anxiety – the fear that the current system is pushing the Earth beyond its ecological limits – experts are also warning of a sharp rise in trauma caused by the experience of climate-related disasters.

In the global south, increasingly intense storms, wildfires, droughts and heatwaves have left their mark not just physically but also on the mental wellbeing of millions of people.

For Elizabeth Wathuti, a climate activist from Kenya, her experience of climate anxiety is not so much about the future but what is happening now. “People in African countries experience eco-anxiety differently because climate change for us is about the impacts that we are already experiencing now and the possibilities of the situation getting worse,” she said.

Elizabeth Wathuti, a climate activist from Kenya, says a common worry she hears among students is, ‘We won’t die of old age, we’ll die from climate change’.
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 Elizabeth Wathuti, a climate activist from Kenya, says a common worry she hears among students is, ‘We won’t die of old age, we’ll die from climate change’. Photograph: Aitor Baez

She works with young people through the Green Generation Initiative she founded and sees the effects of eco-anxiety first-hand. A common worry she hears among students is: “We won’t die of old age, we’ll die from climate change.”

Extreme climate events can create poverty, which exacerbates mental health problems, and Wathuti says she has seen stress, depression and alcohol and drug abuse as some of the side-effects of climate anxiety and trauma in her country.

Even in the UK, a recent study by the Environment Agency found that people who experience extreme weather such as storms or flooding are 50% more likely to suffer from mental health problems, including stress and depression, for years afterwards.

More than 1,000 clinical psychologists have signed an open letter highlighting the impact of the crisis on people’s wellbeing and predicting “acute trauma on a global scale in response to extreme weather events, forced migration and conflict”.

Kaaren Knight, a clinical psychologist who coordinated the letter, said: “The physical impacts related to extreme weather, food shortages and conflict are intertwined with the additional burden of mental health impacts and it is these psychologists are particularly concerned about.”

She added that fear and trauma “significantly reduced psychological wellbeing”, particularly in children. “This is of huge concern to us and needs to be part of the conversation when we talk about climate breakdown.”

One of the high-profile signatories of the letter, Prof Mike Wang, the chair of the Association of Clinical Psychologists UK, said: “Inaction and complacency are the privileges of yesterday … Psychologists are ready and willing to help countries protect the health and wellbeing of their citizens given the inevitable social and psychological consequences of climate change.”

This rallying of the psychological profession around the climate crisis has led to experts around the world forming groups to research and treat the growing number of people caught up in the unfolding crisis, attempting to help them move from fear and paralysis towards action.

But even for those who are following this advice, the scale of the emergency is taking its toll. Kennedy Williams – who has set up his own group, Climate Psychologists, specialising in climate anxiety – said he and his colleagues were not immune from the psychological impacts of the crisis.

“This is such a universal thing that [we] have all been through our own set of climate-related grief and despair, and we talk about riding the wave between hope and despair … it is absolutely as real for us as it is for anyone else.”

Advice for parents

Remember that you do not need to be a climate expert It’s OK to explore learning together. If your child asks a question you can’t answer immediately, respond by saying: “What a great question. Let me look into that so I can answer it properly.”

Try to validate, rather than minimise, children’s emotions If children express anxiety, it’s much better to say: “It’s OK to feel worried. Here is what we can do about it,” than to say: “Don’t worry. It’s all fine.” But always try to support this emotion with suggestions for positive action.

Negative information hits harder Bad or threatening facts tend to resonate more strongly – and therefore stick in the mind. So try to balance one piece of negative news with three pieces of positive news. Have some examples of good climate-related news ready – for example, successful conservation projects.

For younger children, keep it local and tangible Suggest litter picks and school events. For teenagers, encourage them to stay connected at a wider level – help them write to their MP, take part in protests and join local communities and campaigns.

Set practical goals as a family and follow through Record and celebrate your climate successes together (even a piece of paper on the fridge door). Reinforce the message that small actions can make a big difference.

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