The world’s climate is changing, across the globe, and associated with this is a growing sense of impending disaster at the situation. Eco-anxiety – defined as the chronic fear of environmental doom – is on the rise, according to Mala Rao and Richard A Powell, in an opinion piece published recently in the British Medical Journal.
Although not yet formally considered a diagnosable condition, eco-anxiety is being recognized by more and more psychologists and psychiatrists, particularly among patients who are children, youth or from communities that have the least resources to overcome the adverse consequences of the climate crisis.
The authors refer to a 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England that found more than half (57%) are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment.
Climate anxiety is not confined to the UK either, as confirmed recently by the “largest and most international” survey of climate anxiety in young people aged 16 to 25 to date. The results showed that the psychological (emotional, cognitive, social, and functional) burdens of climate change are “profoundly affecting huge numbers of these young people round the world.”
Young people also feel a sense of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults, noted the researchers. For not only are there warnings from climate change groups that “greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” but also there seems to be great inertia on the part of many adults, including those in positions of power, to take any significant action. Leaders are consequently seen as failing to respond adequately, leaving young people with “no future” and “humanity doomed.”
In addition, it is likely that the effects of increasing eco-anxiety on health and wellbeing will add substantially to the national cost of addressing the climate crisis, particularly if these effects are not dealt with timeously. There is evidence linking the experience of climate change effects with increased risks of depression, low mood, extreme mental distress, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, and further deterioration in those with a history of mental illness, explained the experts.
And they call on leaders to “recognize the challenges ahead, the need to act now, and the commitment necessary to create a path to a happier and healthier future, leaving no one behind.”
According to Rao and Powell, there are ways we can alleviate the rising levels of climate anxiety.
“The best chance of increasing optimism and hope in the eco-anxious young and old is to ensure they have access to the best and most reliable information on climate mitigation and adaptation.”
“Especially important is information on how they could connect more strongly with nature, contribute to greener choices at an individual level, and join forces with like-minded communities and groups.”
“The climate crisis is an existential threat, and fearfulness about the future cannot be fully tackled until a common, united, global strategy is put in place to address the root cause, global warming, and to give everyone – especially the young and the most vulnerable communities – the hope of a better future.”