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  • Writer's pictureEirini Sampson

Eco-anxiety, a mounting problem plaguing young generations

Some describe eco-anxiety as a mental health problem, while others argue that it is a rational psychological and emotional response to the overlapping ecological crises we are facing today.

The response can be triggered by media stories on environmental and climate crises, as well as human efforts to combat them. A recent trigger has been the movie “Don’t Look Up” for many working in the field of sustainability and climate-change, which acted as a consistent reminder of where we are currently at in the climate change discourse.

Research findings

Recently, a survey of thousands of 16 to 25 year olds found that climate change is causing distress, anger and other ‘negative’ emotions in children and young people worldwide. The survey has been the largest of its kind with 10,000 respondents in 10 countries.

What some have labelled ‘eco anxiety’ is having a negative impact on respondents’ daily lives, say researchers, and is partly caused by the feeling that governments are not doing enough to avoid a climate catastrophe.

“This study provides arguments for anyone who has any connection to youth mental health — climate change is a real dimension into their mental-health problems,” says Sarah Ray, who studies climate anxiety at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.

The survey found that almost 60% of the respondents felt ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’ and many associated negative emotions with climate change.

Phoenix Smith - an ecotherapist - says that climate change emotions can feel like grieving: "It can be denial at first, and then you may have some fear and anger and then sadness. "We are all going to be uncomfortable," Smith says. "So I'm not going to tell you. 'Do this! do that!' No, we all are going to have to learn and find tools to learn to sit with the discomfort."

In a separate study of university students in Australia and New Zealand, Teaghan Hogg, a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra in Australia, found that about two-third of participants experienced climate anxiety some of the time. This included rumination and physical symptoms which were distinct from symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.

“As much as we try to make change, I also see government inaction — trees being cut up on the daily,” Jennifer Uchendu, a climate activist based in Lagos, told reporters at a press conference where the survey results were presented. She recalled feeling anger and grief about government-backed deforestation in her country.

“Young people are having to suffer the brunt of these issues when crisis or disasters come in.”

In the survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents from Nigeria said that their feelings about climate change had negatively affected their daily life.

My legally geared mind - and I think many others' - is jumping to the potential that these surveys are holding as proof for climate-change lawsuits. Climate change litigation is on a constant rise, so, to what extent should this be considered a moral injury under human rights law? Shouldn’t governmental bodies - and, may I boldly argue, private corporations - be held accountable for placing children and young peoples’ right to life at jeopardy?

Some ways to cope

Although not considered a diagnosable condition, recognition of eco-anxiety and its complex psychological effects is on the rise. It becomes imperative that global leaders recognise the challenges that lie ahead, the need for immediate and radical action and the actions - rather than mere promises - necessary to create a path to a healthier future for children and young adults.

Some ways that have been recommended by The Conversation sets out four ways to cope with eco-anxiety, and no these do not include meditating every day for 20 minutes to prevent this existential dread. Instead, these are some coping mechanisms to prevent these feelings from becoming deliberating, while they also set out a range of behavioural, cognitive and emotional strategies that can be used.

  1. Validation: a part of managing anxiety is to validate it by acknowledging it.

  2. Time out: taking mental breaks and avoiding news feeds. This gives us time to restore a sense of balance while setting boundaries with climate doom presented in the media.

  3. Seek hope: this may look like searching for alternative visions of the future and trusting that we, as a collective, will eventually resolve the crisis before it is too late.

  4. Take action: climate change has been described as the greatest collective action problem we have ever faced, meaning that changes must come from a collaborative systemic reshaping by individuals, industries and governments.

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