Feeling anxious about climate change? You’re not the only one

A portrait picture of a girl cropped so that it only shows half her face, and shown horizontally.
(c) Zulmaury Saavedra, Unsplash

As global temperatures rise, so do the mental health implicationsDr Emma Lawrance, Mental Health Innovations Fellow at Imperial’s Institute of Global Health Innovation, blogs on why it’s time to take the mental health implications of climate change seriously. 

Mental health crisis. Climate crisis. While both are familiar phrases to anyone reading the press these days, the links between climate change and mental health remain unobvious to many. Yet despite the current lack of concrete evidence for some impacts of climate change on mental health, the anecdotal tales are rapidly mounting.

A hot topic

Parents are dealing with inconsolably anxious children, fearing for their future after learning about climate breakdown in the classroom (see here, here and here); psychiatrists are reporting growing numbers of patients frozen in anger and anxiety for their lack of control over what is to come for our planet, themselves and their children (see here, here and here); farmers in Australia are driven to suicide by climate change-influenced droughts (see hereherehere and here); youth mental health charities are reporting their users lose sleep worrying about environmental and political issues. The case is building, and it’s time to take it seriously.  

The growing trend of people seeking mental health support to process the implications of climate change has led to professional bodies – such as the American Psychological Association in the USA and the UK Council for Psychotherapy – writing reports and holding conferences to raise awareness, and consider how best to manage these emerging mental health needs. The situation has even broadened our lexicon: solastalgia is the feeling of loss and distress about the transformation of homelands; and ‘eco-anxiety‘ is the chronic and overwhelming fear of environmental doom and impending disaster, which is now a clinical diagnosis. 

A 2018 Yale study of adults in the United States found that, of those who accept climate change is happening, 62% feel afraid and helpless. In the UK, there is limited empirical evidence. However, a small commissioned survey this year found that 40% of 16-24 year-olds feel “overwhelmed” by climate change, echoing another smallscale survey from the United States in 2018, which revealed that 72% of 18-34 year-olds reported negative news stories about the environment sometimes impact their emotional wellbeing. 

A group of children taking part in a climate march
(c) Mika Baumeister, Unsplash

More questions than answers 

There is a real need to develop this small-scale evidence base to inform what communities, healthcare systems and governments need to consider when developing wellbeing strategies or policies for climate change. However, currently, there are more questions than there are answers. How does the direct or indirect awareness of our changing planet impact mental health? How big are the repercussions compared with other factors influencing mental health? Who is affected and how, and how we can best support individuals and communities 

Even the direct impacts of climate change for mental health remain unknown to most. These events will come with mental health burden, as people are forced to face traumas and the breakdown of their communities or livelihoods. In addition, psychiatric medications can impair the body’s ability to regulate temperatureHeatwaves and atypical weather are linked with worsened mood, more severe symptoms of mental illness and increased episodes and hospitalisations for psychosis and other mental health issues (see herehere and here). At a local and global scale, are healthcare and emergency response systems prepared for this? 

The urge to act 

While it’s becoming clearer that climate change will have impacts on individual and collective mental health, it is also pertinent to ask, “what impact does mental health have on our response to climate change?”. Being paralysed with fear and anger while reading the news is an unhelpful and unhealthy response to uncertainty. Yet fear itself can be a powerful driver and, as a collective response, one that can helpfully drive action. As teen activist Greta Thunberg famously told world leaders at Davos, “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” But too often people can go from ignorant to overwhelmed. The fatalistic response – “there’s nothing we can do, so we may as well enjoy time on the sinking ship” – is another unhelpful reaction.

Crucially, the very thing that could help those struggling with eco-anxiety could also help action on the climate crisis. Banding with like-minded individuals to take positive action, regaining a feeling of some control and navigating the uncertainty together is a good response for both mental wellbeing and climate change. Appropriate mental health support to cope with the climate crisis could 

Collective grief, collective action 

The world is changing. We will need to collectively grieve and respond. Many young people are only too aware that they will bear the brunt of the climate crisis, and we need to understand what that awareness does to their minds. Mental health systems and disaster response systems will need support to adapt and adjust. Academics and activists need to learn to avoid burnout. 

In short, we need to learn from each other. That’s why the Institute of Global Health Innovation and the Grantham Institute are excited to be collaborating to highlight what research is needed in this space, to develop the evidence base that is currently missing from this emerging conversation. Let’s talk. 

Dr Emma Lawrance will be speaking more on this topic at the Institute of Global Health Innovation’s Global Health Forum on 17 October, 3pm-5pm, which will focus on climate change and public health. The event includes presentations by Dr Neil JenningsDr Daniela Fecht and Dr Kris MurraySign up here to attend this free event. 

Dr Neil Jennings will also be speaking at Sleepwalking into the Anthropocene – the new age of anxiety on 19 October, an event run by UK Council for Psychotherapy in partnership with The Grantham Institute. 

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