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Awareness of climate change as a mental health issue is growing. Recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary, “eco-anxiety” is one term used to describe strong negative emotions associated with climate change that seep into the everyday lives of those affected.
“With people having access to real-time data, communication with activists, and witnessing a serious change in the climatic conditions they have been used to, it is no surprise that people are concerned about their home planet,” business consultant Kamyar Shah said.
“For me, the eco-anxiety comes from the helplessness. The feeling that I am but an insignificant speck, and my future is slowly being taken away from me,” said Jack Turner, who works in the water industry at Pioneer Water Tanks.
Who is affected by eco-anxiety?
“Eco-anxiety can affect anyone who is receptive to their environment,” explained Jovana Durovic, Editor-in-Chief of Homegrounds, an eco-conscious online publication about coffee. Durovic, who has helped a friend work through eco-anxiety, stated that drastic changes to a familiar environment “can shake your understanding of the world.”
While eco-anxiety has become more prevalent across the globe, ecological crises have had a particularly strong effect on the mental health of children and young adults. The progression of climate change has caused children to worry about their futures, feel voiceless, and lose trust in adults.
Kids have voiced concerns that government leaders in particular cannot be trusted to effectively mitigate climate change and protect those most at risk. In a survey of 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 years administered earlier this year, 65% felt that “governments are failing young people.”
Youth activists called more attention to government inaction during the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). On November 5th, the end of the first week of the conference, young people led and attended a demonstration in Glasgow to demand accountability from global leaders. While the theme of the conference that day was “youth and public empowerment,” protest speakers criticized politicians for their continued unwillingness to take substantial action against climate change.
Kids alone do not bear the burden of eco-anxiety. This crisis has also hit parents and potential parents hard as they consider the ethical implications of raising children in the wake of climate disasters that threaten the future livability of the planet. Apart from concerns about the safety of their children, parents also face the monumental task of deciding when to have difficult conversations about climate change with their kids.
Turner stated that eco-anxiety makes him feel helpless “[k]nowing it is almost completely out of my control, and that unless governments and corporations step up soon there will not be a world as we know it for my children or grandchildren to live in.”
How does eco-anxiety manifest?
Those affected by eco-anxiety can experience symptoms. According to The Independent, about 17% of children who answered a survey from BBC Newsround stated that eco-anxiety had affected the way they eat and sleep. The same survey revealed that nearly one-fifth of respondents reported having a climate change-related nightmare. Feelings of uncertainty surrounding the future of the planet could also contribute to other health issues like addiction.
The impacts of eco-anxiety extend beyond trauma, fear, anger, and guilt. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Humboldt University environmental studies professor Sarah Jaquette Ray asks why eco-anxiety has not led to greater action and change. Dr. Ray explains that climate change is not one specific issue, but a monumental problem. Thus, these worries make people feel that individual actions, like recycling and reducing one’s personal carbon footprint, are insignificant, leading to nihilism and apathy.
Novelist and farmer Julie Carrick Dalton’s eco-anxiety influenced her career. Dalton explained that she began farming after she “panic-bought” a large plot of land close to her family home to protect the wildlife that use the habitat, including bears and moose. As she familiarized herself with the land, Dalton saw first hand the impact of rising temperatures on the growing season and “began witnessing the effects of invasive and endangered species.” Her novel Waiting for the Night Song “emerged as a result of these climate anxieties.” Dalton will release another climate anxiety-inspired novel in a year.
Some people with eco-anxiety feel helpless in the face of massive emissions from a small number of corporations. The Consumer Data Platform released a report in 2017 which revealed that 100 fossil fuel producers are responsible for 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions globally.
Shah agreed that corporations play a significant role in people’s climate anxiety. “[I]t is a matter of indignant shame that corporates continue to destroy a planet along with all its inhabitants (human or otherwise) even though we are supposed to be the smartest of the lot. Are we really?”
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate student Kayla McManus-Viana is a teaching assistant for the Global Studies department Global Issues class. “Students are feeling anxious and incredibly angry at corporations’ complicity” in the climate crisis, McManus-Viana said.
Efficacy of the term
Although many people identify with the symptoms of eco-anxiety, the actual term is controversial to some. In her op-ed, Dr. Ray argues that the term could depoliticize important effects of climate change, which are exacerbated by systemic issues. Placing concerns associated with eco-anxiety solely under the umbrella of mental health does not address the actual causes of climate change and eco-anxiety, Dr. Ray states.
Terminology aside, anxiety surrounding the climate crisis is on the rise and people are looking for solutions. In an article for The Guardian, Mala Rao and Richard Powell from the Primary Care and Public Health Department at Imperial College London suggested community-building and accessibility of accurate information on climate mitigation can reduce eco-anxiety. Such education can help people who care deeply about the state of the planet feel empowered by their actions rather than powerless.
Turner said that to deal with eco-anxiety, “The only thing I can do is have open conversations with my friends and family, urge them to pay more attention, and hope that I can be one of many small drivers of social change that get us across the line.”
Psychologists, climate activists, and other experts have created resources like workshops, online groups, and newsletters to help people learn about and manage their eco-anxiety, use their emotions to take action, and communicate with others who feel the same way.
Dalton also leads workshops and gives lectures on Fiction in the Age of Climate Crisis. “I believe art can play a role in how we process climate anxiety. […] Dystopian stories help us imagine possible futures – and can inspire readers to fight for a different future.”