Home Hybrid Learning Youths’ psychological health and climate change: What’s the connection?

Youths’ psychological health and climate change: What’s the connection?


Youths’ psychological health and climate change: What’s the connection?

The current global climate crisis is taking a toll on youths’ mental health, says Dr. Samantha Stanley, a scientist from the UNSW Institute of Climate Risk & Response, whose study’s focus is the emotional impacts of climate change among people.

“Eco-distress, or eco-anxiety, is not necessarily a new area of research. There’s some fascinating older research on how people are affected by [the] degradation to their local environment, for example,” Stanley said in a report from the UNSW Newsroom.  “But as we’re entering a climate-changed world, more people are experiencing distress about the environment without necessarily having that first-hand experience of environmental disaster. I think it’s an old area that was not very popular and has suddenly exploded.”

Earlier, there had been an international report stating that 50 per cent of young people aged 16–25 felt sad, anxious, or powerless, or had other negative emotions about climate change. Last year, a YouGov poll showed that 76 per cent of young people expressed their concern about climate change while 67 per cent of the respondents said that climate concerns impacted their mental health.

Experts have admitted that while the effect of climate change on our physical health – such as the increase of tropical and respiratory diseases due to the changing climate and rising temperature – has dominated the research landscape, the emotional and psychological repercussions are less understood.

“While these concerns are not pathological – it’s not something to be diagnosed with – it is something that researchers are interested in understanding, to know how it may be affecting people’s wellbeing more generally or even potentially motivating them to take part in climate actions like protest,” said Stanley.

Stanley also admitted that there’s no clear, exact definition of eco-anxiety.

“One of the hardest questions is actually how do you define it,” she said. “There are lots of different terms, and sometimes people are talking about specific emotional responses like feelings of anxiety or anger about climate change, and other times they’re describing a more general distress response that might include a range of emotions and a range of negative thoughts and experiences.”

But broadly speaking, as a common term, eco-anxiety refers to “an anxious response to a range of ecological issues, from climate change and pollution to climate migration and climate justice concerns. On the other hand, when these concerns centre on climate change in particular, it is referred to as ‘climate-anxiety’.

For now, eco-anxiety can be comprised of four different aspects:

  • Affective symptoms: feeling worried, nervous or on edge.
  • Behavioral symptoms: where the worry and concern about environmental problems is affecting someone’s daily life. It may impact their ability to work or study, or may disrupt their sleep or socialising.
  • Rumination: when someone is unable to stop thinking about environmental problems. 
  • Personal impact anxiety: a focus on their own role in contributing to environmental issues, including a focus on how they can address the problem. 

“From our research, which has been led by my PhD student Teaghan Hogg from the University Canberra, it appears that those four different aspects of eco-anxiety reinforce each other,” Stanley explained. “Generally, we find that they’re all interrelated. So, the more you experience one, the more you tend to experience the other.”

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