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How climate inaction is driving a mental health crisis in children

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 14 September 2021 09:11 GMT

A child sits on a makeshift raft on a flooded road following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China July 22, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song

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Young people's feelings of anger, fear and powerlessness arise less from environmental damage than from the unwillingness of adults to stop it, researchers find

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, Sept 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation - As climate change drives a surge in deadly disasters - and harsh scientific warnings of worse to come - young people are struggling with growing "eco-anxiety" about the future of the planet and their own lives, psychologists say in a new study.

But their feelings of anger, fear and powerlessness arise less from the environmental damage itself than the unwillingness of adults to stop it, despite the availability of solutions and overwhelming evidence of the risks, the research finds.

"Eco-anxiety is a sign of mental health, an entirely appropriate response to what's going on," said Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist and lead author of an international study set to be published in the medical journal The Lancet.

Luisa Neubauer, a German climate campaigner with the Fridays for Future students' movement, said inaction by world leaders on global warming "is too much to handle, too much to accept".

"What does it mean for young people to see the world fall apart while we have solutions at hand, while we know how to stop it? Government is pushing us in front of a bus," the 25-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Here's what the study of 10,000 children and youth in 10 countries around the world had to say about rising climate-related mental health risks in young people:

How many young people are worried about climate risks and how fearful are they?

More than half of those surveyed - in countries from India, Brazil and Nigeria to Britain, Australia and the United States - said they feared for their own family's security and anxiety was affecting their ability to sleep, study, eat or play.

Four in 10 said climate threats made them hesitant to have children of their own one day, and over half admitted they believe humanity is "doomed".

"We were horrified to see these numbers, the scale of the distress," said Hickman, a board member of the UK-based Climate Psychology Alliance.

Youth from the Philippines - slammed by increasingly severe cyclones - and from deforestation-hit Brazil ranked the highest on many measures of worry, with more than nine in 10 surveyed saying they are frightened for the future.

But those in wealthier countries also showed high levels of distress.

"I think people more and more acknowledge how threatening it really is, especially as a young person, to look at your life ahead and know you will spend every single year of your life in the (climate) crisis," Neubauer said.

How is that frustration and fear affecting young people?

The study noted that such high levels of distress, the impact on daily lives and feelings of betrayal will "inevitably affect the mental health of children and young people".

Some psychologists have suggested that helping worried youth take significant action to tackle global warming - from joining protests to eating less meat - can reduce feelings of powerlessness and protect their mental wellbeing.

But Hickman argued that "thinking the way to cure eco-anxiety is eco-action isn't right", calling it a "simplified solution" that doesn't address the real problem: the need for governments to act urgently.

Neubauer said she expects the long-term stresses on young people could radicalise some - and lead others to disengage.

"It's easy to lose trust in government and political systems these days because they’re failing us so much," she said.

"But it's also easy to turn away from the whole thing, (to) say it's so tough I can't deal with it, that I don't want to read the news anymore. We will see people wanting to escape from the crisis and the inaction," she predicted.

Could the study help fuel climate lawsuits by youth?

Young activists from Portugal to Colombia and the United States have filed a growing series of lawsuits demanding swifter action on climate change, usually on human rights grounds.

Six Portuguese children and young adults, for instance, last year asked the European Court of Human Rights to order 33 countries to make steeper emissions cuts, arguing inadequate government responses jeopardised their future.

Neubauer herself was lead plaintiff in a landmark court case that led Germany's federal constitutional court in April to rule the country's climate plan was "incompatible with fundamental rights", forcing the government to step up emissions cuts.

"The court surprised us by really jumping in and saying ... today's inaction will harm tomorrow's freedom and safety," which are guaranteed in the constitution, she said.

Hickman said that more broadly, "psychological distress could be argued to be a human rights violation. Our findings show us there is a moral injury to children and young people."

What can lower mental health risks for youth?

Getting many more people to see climate change as their own personal fight and to effectively push governments for change is what will make a difference, Neubauer said.

"We need more pressure. We need more people to understand that it's their issue too - that it's everyone's issue," she said.

Right now, the idea that young people will somehow "fix" climate change is a heavy weight for them to carry, she said.

"We won't fix it. We're doing everything we can - but that won't be enough. We need everyone there," she added.

Hickman agreed that ramping up pressure on government and other officials with the power to drive real climate action is the easiest way to lower mental health pressure on children.

"We want to reduce eco-anxiety among youth and young people by increasing it among government ministers," she said. "We need to say to governments: 'Where is your conscience?'"

Related stories:

Suicide to 'eco-anxiety': Climate change spurs mental health crisis

Tears flow as politicians fail to dispel 'climate darkness'

Flood damage now a mental health threat in Britain

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.