Growing number of youth are experiencing ‘eco-anxiety’; experts say despair can be turned into meaningful action
As graduating president of her high school’s environment club, Anita Wong knows a lot about individual acts to promote sustainability.
Throughout her four years participating with the club, the Mississauga teen has helped make important changes at her school. The group has held workshops on upcycling, set up compostable cutlery for all school events and most recently opened a thrift store for a circular micro-economy.
But while Wong leads such efforts, she knows the actions of youth won’t have large-scale impact unless governments and businesses move away from the fossil fuel industry.
The constant nagging concern—which can turn into a prevailing fear that more and more young people are weighed down by—is hard for many older generations to understand.
Those born before the ‘90s did not experience the level of severe weather seen recently, as record breaking heat sets global temperature records. Today’s digital communications, while providing young people with a range of information and imagery, can also have an all-consuming effect older generations were freed from, before the arrival of smartphones, social media and citizen blogging.
Older generations are largely responsible for shaping a society driven by consumption, the prevailing relationship between individuals and the world around them which dramatically shifted post-war values starting in the ‘60s, when the children of the war generation began to take over decision making.
The consequences of the hyper-consumption that has unfolded, with carbon-based energy fuelling this lifestyle and governments working in close partnership with businesses that benefit, will be felt most acutely by generations that did not create this dominant economic, political and cultural mindset.
A 2021 article on climate anxiety and young people published in The Lancet, a widely read general medical journal, included findings from a global survey of 10,000 youth aged 16 to 25.
“[T]his survey shows that large numbers of young people globally regard governments as failing to acknowledge or act on the crisis in a coherent, urgent way, or respond to their alarm. This is experienced as betrayal and abandonment, not just of the individual but of young people and future generations generally.”
It described the apathy of older generations in power.
“Defence mechanisms against the anxiety provoked by climate change have been well documented, including dismissing, ignoring, disavowing, rationalising, and negating the experiences of others. These behaviours, when exhibited by adults and governments, could be seen as leading to a culture of uncare. Thus, climate anxiety in children and young people should not be seen as simply caused by ecological disaster, it is also correlated with more powerful others (in this case, governments) failing to act on the threats being faced.”
The article later described the way many youth feel, based on responses to questions in the international survey.
“The results here reflect and expand upon the findings of an earlier interview study, in which young people described their feelings about climate change as being ‘stranded by the generational gap’ and feeling ‘frustrated by unequal power, betrayed and angry, disillusioned with authority, drawing battle lines’.”
The survey results were detailed in the journal article.
“Respondents across all countries were worried about climate change (59% were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried). More than 50% reported each of the following emotions: sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. More than 45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change (eg, 75% said that they think the future is frightening and 83% said that they think people have failed to take care of the planet).”
The academic journal Frontiers in Psychology published a research article last year titled, Eco-anxiety In Children. Its findings were equally concerning.
“Youth are increasingly aware of the negative effects of climate change on the planet and human health, but this knowledge can often come with significant affective responses, such as psychological distress, anger, or despair. Experiencing major 'negative' emotions, like worry, guilt, and hopelessness in anticipation of climate change has been identified with the term eco-anxiety.”
Wong spoke to the emotions being described in more and more medical journals and research papers as well as by mental health professionals increasingly dealing with the issue of eco-anxiety.
“It's like this lingering dread that's always in the back of my head no matter what I do,” she told The Pointer. “I feel that human greed has taken over. And because of that, we aren't able to find the solutions and climate change the way that we should.”
“Climate distress in children and young people,” according to the authors of the The Lancet article, “can be regarded as unjust and involving moral injury.”
Wong’s experience is the reality for many youth across Peel. But while climate change is a significant stressor, it is only one of a number of factors leading to a rapidly accelerating youth mental health crisis.
A report commissioned by Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO), in January 2020, found that, across Peel in 2019, wait times for counselling and therapy directed toward those under 18 years of age could reach as high as 566 days, or roughly 18 months. For intensive mental health services, patients can be left waiting over two years.
The CMHO report painted the picture of Peel’s mental health crisis pre-pandemic. When COVID-19 hit Ontario, it created chaos across the healthcare sector, impacting almost every service. As the pandemic dragged on, outcomes for those suffering poor mental health worsened.
Over 98,000 client visits took place at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Peel-Dufferin chapter between 2020 and 2021, according to the organization’s most recent annual report. This was up from 84,153 visits the previous year, a 17 percent increase.
A recent supercell thunderstorm over Texas produces an unusual cloud formation. Some find it intriguing; many young people see these uncommon weather events as ominous.
A report from the same organization found that in February 2022, one quarter of all residents in Ontario were seeking mental health support, up from nine percent two years prior. Nearly half of the respondents who participated in a poll said their mental health deteriorated during the pandemic.
With the World Health Organization declaring the pandemic over in May, more attention is being drawn to the global climate crisis and its effects but many experts say more needs to be invested in understanding the scale of health consequences created by the rapid rise in planetary temperature.
July 3 to 6 saw the global temperature record broken three times since the University of Maine's Climate Reanalyzer began analyzing atmospheric temperature data from around the world in 1979.
The data come from measurement devices dotted around the Northern and Southern Hemisphere (which is currently in its winter). The arrival of El Niño, warm sea-surface temperatures in a band around the equator, impacted the sweltering temperatures, researchers explained.
Data and scientific measurements of human created atmospheric carbon clearly show global warming is being caused by our failure to reduce fossil fuel and other GHG emissions.
“The climate crisis has important long-term implications for physical and mental health as a result of acute and chronic environmental changes, from storms and wildfires to changing landscapes, and increasing temperatures,” The Lancet article reported.
“[B]ecause the climate crisis is so complex and lacks a clear solution, anxiety can easily become too intense and even overwhelming. Climate anxiety can be connected to many emotions, including worry, fear, anger, grief, despair, guilt, and shame, as well as hope, although the presence of these vary between individuals. As research in this field emerges, certain emotions have received more attention, especially climate grief, worry, and fear, tied to current and anticipated losses.”
These losses, or the fear of losing what previous generations have taken for granted, can be crippling.
“I don't feel that we're paying enough attention to the psychological impacts of this transition or this crisis,” Stefania Maggi, a professor in the department of psychology at Carleton University who specializes in psychological barriers to climate action and youth activism, told The Pointer. “We're not preparing people enough to navigate those difficult changes.”
As tornadoes ripped across parts of Ontario over the past couple days and shelf clouds seldom seen before hung eerily above nearby landscapes, unusual weather events can be distressing for the population.
Top, a shelf cloud over Southern Ontario (Farmer’s Almanac.com); Bottom, a shelf cloud in India over the weekend attracted crowds mystified by the spectacle (Twitter/@Anindya_veyron).
Maggi said unusual weather can invoke a wide range of emotions like fear, anxiety, dread, feeling overwhelmed and discomfort. The lack of agency felt by many who feel powerless when contemplating how their own life will be impacted can be paralyzing.
“For young people who are thinking about their future, for example, knowing that there is an expiration date to their ability to realize their life goals, is very daunting,” Maggi said. “It becomes a matter of existentialism. How can I even plan for the future? So the choices I make today, do they even matter? Is there even a place for me to give meaning to the things that I do?”
The wildfire smoke that has blanketed much of the nation during stretches of the late spring and early summer has forced people to remain indoors, impacting many of the activities people enjoy for their mental and physical health.
The Lancet article warns about the long-term consequences of climate change.
“Such high levels of distress, functional impact, and feelings of betrayal will negatively affect the mental health of children and young people. Climate anxiety might not constitute a mental illness, but the realities of climate change alongside governmental failures to act are chronic, long-term, and potentially inescapable stressors.”
Wong said her feelings of anxiety surrounding climate change become noticeably worse during extreme weather events and when legislative changes send sustainability policies backward, as has been seen across Ontario with the Doug Ford PC government’s scrapping of Electric Vehicle subsidies and more than 700 green energy projects, while vowing to build more highways and develop inside the protected Greenbelt.
The visible degradation of the Earth is one of the many factors creating widespread climate anxiety among youth.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Help Phone, a popular crisis line for youth, saw a 30 percent increase in text conversations with counsellors last month compared to May as smoke choked the air in many parts of Ontario, triggering Environment Canada to issue a series of severe weather warnings. While there is no data that can attribute the increase in calls and texts directly to the raging wildfires, experts have stated the rise in anxiety is correlated.
The feelings of distress and anxiety that arise from the climate crisis will affect everyone differently, especially those who have diagnosed anxiety disorders compared to those who are just feeling extra amounts of stress from the constant news and from witnessing firsthand the impacts of climate change.
“Most research has focused on the direct impacts of climate change on mental health, which are those that happen after experiencing an extreme weather event such as a flood, an earthquake, or a hurricane,” according to research cited in the Frontiers in Psychology article. “These major life disruptions can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and suicidal thoughts. Indirect impacts of climate change can also affect mental health through consequences on the economy, migration, damage to physical and social infrastructure, food and water shortages, and conflict; all of which have been linked to stress, grief, anxiety and depression. However, even without experiencing the direct or indirect effects of climate change, many feel distress simply by being aware of the global environmental crisis.”
Climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety, is not defined in the DSM-5, a reference book published by the American Psychiatric Association on mental disorders and related brain conditions, and the guiding manual of the profession does not have an official diagnosis, definition, or treatment plan. But the phenomenon is being recognized by more and more mental health professionals as more and more people, especially youth, experience symptoms of climate-related mental health issues.
“Eco anxiety is not a mental health problem in the sense that it is out of proportion to the response that you're expecting, given the problem,” Maggi said.
But anxiety caused by the climate crisis can have a large negative impact on those already struggling from an anxiety diagnosis such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). While those who do not have an underlying anxiety disorder may experience mild stress or a condition such as insomnia from constant thoughts about the climate crisis, many will be able to continue on with their daily lives and even channel that stress into action. But for those with a condition such as GAD, stress from the climate crisis can become immobilizing. For them, it is important to access mental health services and follow individualized treatment plans which may include medication and/or therapy. But for those who do not have an underlying diagnosis, there are simple steps that can be taken to help control some of the overwhelming emotions.
Nature prescribing is a common recommendation for those experiencing heightened stress levels due to the climate crisis. Being out in nature releases serotonin from the brain, improving one’s mood.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
When people experience feelings of dread and anxiety related to climate change, one of the most common courses of action recommended by mental health professionals is to spend time in nature. Nature prescriptions work for a variety of reasons. They often involve physical movement which has been proven to release serotonin in the brain, improving mood. Fresh air can have a similar calming effect. It also helps contribute to education about the environment which can help youth sort through their feelings. Oftentimes misinformation can lead to increased anxiety, but understanding the problem at its root can help to ground those experiencing anxiety and encourage them to take part in solutions.
“People who are more connected to nature are more likely to engage in other pro environmental behaviors beyond just conservation, like voting for climate advocates, like recycling or conserving energy,” Melissa Lam, president of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, told The Pointer. “Working on this nature prescription program is one way to deal with my own climate anxiety, but also to make sure that the population is resilient enough to deal with the effects of climate change.”
It is also crucial to tackle the rapidly growing myth that ‘it’s too late’. While the world has been given a ‘final warning’ by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the impending disasters that could strike if rapid action is not taken, passively giving in to the idea that nothing can be done will cause an increase in anxiety.
A recent report published in the journal Nature suggested the myth that it is too late to save the planet has become the leading climate misperception globally, ahead of climate change denial or disagreeing with the anthropogenic causes of rapidly increasing temperatures. Giving into this increasingly common myth stiffles action. When the IPCC issued its ‘final warning’ the intent was to create an atmosphere for people to foster change, not a society that gives up. While the report made clear that the world is very close to the 1.5 degree tipping point, our ability to adapt to climate change “has progressed across all sectors and regions, with documented benefits and varying effectiveness”.
The Lancet had a strong message in its article on youth mental health and climate change. While government inaction is morally indefensible, young people should not become complacent in the face of reckless decision making by older politicians.
“The failure of governments to adequately address climate change and the impact on younger generations potentially constitutes moral injury. Nations must respond to protect the mental health of children and young people by engaging in ethical, collective, policy-based action against climate change.”
The article continued the theme later: “Failure of governments to protect them from harm from climate change could be argued to be a failure of human rights and a failure of ethical responsibility to care, leading to moral injury (the distressing psychological aftermath experienced when one perpetrates or witnesses actions that violate moral or core beliefs).”
The article highlighted the need for young people to take action, as a way to combat not just the climate crisis, but their own anxiety as well.
“Factors known to protect against mental health problems include psychosocial resources, coping skills, and agency to address and mitigate stressors. In the context of climate anxiety, this protection would come in the form of having one's feelings and views heard, validated, respected, and acted upon, particularly by those in positions of power and upon whom we are dependent, accompanied by collective pro-environmental actions.”
Maggi said the action by youth being witnessed around the world is promising and can help people take control over their emotional response. Once this happens anyone can contribute to climate solutions.
“That's the emotional thing,” she said. “And what really important research has shown is that when we are navigating all these confusing and overwhelming emotions, we are able to do something and to be engaged with climate change, if we are capable of feeling some positive emotions as well.”
While nearly 80 percent of youth aged 16 to 25 across Canada said that climate change affects their overall mental health, according to a survey by Lakehead University, 71 percent of respondents said they still believe people can take meaningful action to address climate change.
The Lancet highlighted perhaps the most powerful development in the climate fight: “Children are now turning to legal action based on government failure to protect ecosystems, young citizens, and their futures.”
Examples from around the world, and right here in Canada, show youth are increasingly standing up and confronting leadership that has proven to be ineffective.
In March, Mississauga youth from the broader advocacy group Future Majority, took to city council chambers to challenge leaders to do more while encouraging them to renew their commitment to climate action, in particular strengthening the City’s set of Green Development Standards (GDS).
These are actions taken by municipalities to encourage environmentally, socially and economically sustainable design of buildings and associated infrastructure. In Mississauga, buildings make up the largest source of emissions and yet the City’s GDS, which were implemented in 2012, have not been updated in more than a decade, despite dramatic, climate-related changes impacting municipal planning.
“If you're going to be listening to developers, as official stakeholders, you should hear from future renters and homeowners as well,” Kaneera Uthayakumaran, a volunteer with Future Majority, said.
Above, the seven youth who challenged the Ontario government for weakening climate policies. While the court ruled against the youth plaintiffs, the decision provides some elements of hope of a new precedent. (Emily Chan/Ecojustice); and bottom, the 15 youth awaiting the decision on their appeal to the decision that threw out their case against the federal government. (Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust)
While the Mississauga youth found an attentive audience of council members — at the same meeting council reaffirmed its commitment to fighting climate change in alignment with the most recent IPCC report — other actions have faced more pushback from leaders.
In the past year, two landmark court cases have seen their light of day, emphasizing the will of young people to take on a generation of leaders who appear more conservative in their actions on climate change.
In Ontario, the Mathur case brought together seven young people challenging the Ontario PC government for its weakened climate policies under the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act. The youth argued their rights were being withheld under Section 7 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees life, liberty and security for all Canadians and ensures every Canadian, regardless of race, religion, national or ethnic origin, colour, sex, age or physical or mental disability, is to be treated with dignity and respect. Despite compelling arguments from the youth, many of which were supported by the judge in the case, the legal challenge was dismissed by the Superior Court of Justice.
Similarly, 15 young people from across Canada banded together to challenge the federal government under Section 7 and 15 in its alleged failure to protect young people from the devastating impacts of climate change. The case was dismissed in 2020 but heard at the federal court of appeal in February and is currently awaiting a decision.
Many youth are facing the same roadblock. Those who have grown up in a world where the realities of climate change are ever present face setbacks appealing to an older generation of leaders with vastly different worldviews.
The majority of our elected officials grew up in an era when investing in green transportation, limiting energy use to heat and cool homes, thinking about the carbon used to eat the food on one’s table everyday, driving vehicles that use less fuel, limiting household waste, using alternative electricity sources such as solar panels, being less consumer oriented, purchasing smaller homes in complete communities and cycling or walking to work specifically to reduce one’s carbon footprint, was simply not part of the collective generational mindset.
While the world’s youth will be tomorrow’s leaders, the planet cannot wait that long.
“One of the major issues that came up was not so much the changes that might happen, but more so that governments and adults were not taking effective action on climate change,” Lam said, referring to the nature prescription program. “One thing that we can do as adults to deal with this youth mental health crisis, especially when it comes to climate change, is put into effect effective policies to show them that we are taking action with our communities to fight climate change.”
The Lancet’s conclusion from the findings of its global survey was more blunt.
“Children facing a future severely damaged by climate change will need support…The global scale of this study is sufficient to warrant a warning to governments and adults around the world, and it underscores an urgent need for greater responsiveness to children and young people's concerns, more in-depth research, and immediate action on climate change.”
Wong desperately wants to see significant policy changes.
In the meantime, she is not giving up on her individual actions that create small, but meaningful change and can inspire other youth to do the same. She is continuing her education by attending the University of Waterloo in the fall to begin her Bachelor’s in Sustainable Financial Management and has big plans to get involved in environmental clubs on campus. She also hopes to get more young people talking about their feelings surrounding climate change and working together to find solutions.
“Whenever I talk to people at my school, I find that all of them either care a lot about the environment, or they don't care at all,” she said. “And so I think that people that are vested in the environment, they are willing to talk about it, because currently, it is not something that can be solved with one person, it definitely needs to be a group effort.”
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