Rise of eco-anxiety: medics warn climate change worries are making children ill

Erupting volcanoes and devastating floods are causing more people to suffer from mental disorders

The erupting Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma. AFP
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Health experts are calling on global leaders to take action on eco-anxiety as rising numbers of children are losing hope about the future of the planet.

From erupting volcanoes to flash flooding, sudden climate change events are leading more people to suffer from depression and anxiety.

Mala Rao and Richard Powell, public health experts from Imperial College London, say that action must be taken now to “create a path to a happier and healthier future".

In their research, they note that neglecting the effects of increasing eco-anxiety “risks exacerbating health and social inequalities between those more or less vulnerable to these psychological impacts.”

“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,” they say.

“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.”

A 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England showed that more than half - 57 per cent - are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment, and a recent international survey of climate anxiety in young people aged 16 to 25 showed that the psychological burdens of climate change are “profoundly affecting huge numbers of youngsters around the world.”

Jenny Thatcher, head of youth and families at Friends of the Earth, said it is very concerning.

“The climate emergency is a major source of anxiety for young people right across the globe, which is unsurprising, given how dramatically it will impact their lives,” she told The National.

“We can’t prevent climate change, but we have the power to limit it. Young people are taking to the streets to hold decision-makers and adults to account, challenging us all to show we care about their futures.

“Research tells us our young do not feel heard, which is only fuelling the problem. We can best remedy climate anxiety by ensuring we listen to young people, empower them to take part in collective action, and make decisions with their future in mind.”

Sarah Cobham, who runs classes to help people suffering with mental health issues at Dreamtime Creative, told The National a number of her members have suffered from eco-anxiety issues.

“I find that eco-anxiety is affecting people on my courses,” she said.

“I have met couples who have decided not to have children because of the state of the planet and one young girl suffers from autism and is terrified about the recent volcanic eruption and is scared she is going to die. I have seen first-hand it is a real problem.

“I have personally experienced it with flooding. The flood table where I live has risen and I live in constant fear of being flooded.”

Research by the National Centre for Social Research found that people in Britain whose homes are damaged by floods and storms are 50 per cent more likely to suffer from problems such as depression or anxiety.

Psychologist Caroline Hickman, who is a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, has many youngsters as clients who are suffering from eco-anxiety.

She told The National that joining climate cafes and groups has helped them.

“Eco-anxiety is the understandable anxiety we all feel when we think about what is happening to the environment, from the ice caps melting to crops failing,” she said.

“It causes anger and frustration, especially when they realise it has been caused by humans and we ought to be able to stop it. Children feel anxious because they care about their future. In some of my cases they cannot eat or sleep and it is affecting their studies.

“In our research we found 56 per cent of children worldwide thought humanity was doomed. I found it very important to tell them that these feelings are healthy and it is because they care.”

Professor Rao has also said that the socioeconomic effects - as yet hidden and unquantified - “will add considerably to the national costs of addressing the climate crisis.”

“The climate emergency is the true health crisis of our time, and our special issue is an urgent call for action and leadership by governments and health professionals around the world,” the BMJ’s editor in chief, Dr Fiona Godlee, said.

“Collectively we must lead by example - driving system change in health care to reduce emissions and waste, advocating for national and international political action, and educating our patients and the public to help safeguard the future of our planet and its people, before it’s too late.”

Updated: October 06, 2021, 9:30 PM