The climate crisis has become a defining issue in our society. Citizens and politicians alike are engaging in debate over effective strategies to mitigate climate change. However, evidence suggests that younger generations are experiencing heightened level of stress and anxiety due to climate change. This condition is commonly referred to as eco-anxiety. According to Medical News Today, the term refers to “a state of anxiety largely based on the current and predicted future state of the environment and human-induced climate change”.
The report highlights specific groups that are most likely to suffer from the effects of climate change. Coastal communities and low lying areas are likely to see the first effects of climate change as well as those who rely on the environment as their occupation. Other examples include environmental refugees, people who suffer from existing mental health conditions and those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The rise is eco-anxiety is especially prevalent amongst young people. Recent studies have shown that over the past decade there has been an “explosion” in levels of anxiety in Britain. Alongside the effects of climate change, other factors have included: the financial crash of 2008, Brexit, climate and the growth of social media. Analysing data from 6.6 million patients at 795 practices across the UK, researchers examined the rate of anxiety diagnosis and treatment since 1998. In that time, the number of cases of people aged between 18-24 almost trebled. The lead researcher of the study Prof Nick Freemantle said: “Given the steep increases in anxiety revealed by this research, and the sheer number of people affected, it is now clear that Britain has a really serious and worsening problem with anxiety, which can have devastating effects on people’s lives. And these data stopped just before the Covid-19 pandemic; we can only speculate on how they would look now.”
The rise is eco-anxiety is especially prevalent amongst young people
But, to what extent has the media fuelled this rise in eco-anxiety? It can certainly be overwhelming at times to read the almost daily reports about the devastating effects of climate change.And while Anxiety UK states that more than 10% of adults are likely to experience a “disabling anxiety disorder” throughout their lifetime, the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is yet to include eco-anxiety as a listed condition. This prevents those suffering with eco-anxiety from finding the correct help and support they deserve.
It has also been suggested that the recent surge in eco-anxiety could have been caused by the 2018 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which argued that carbon emissions needed to be reduced by 45% by 2030 in order to avoid serious drought, flooding and famine. Again, the treatment the NHS provides is only specifically related to Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) which includes medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
The effects of eco-anxiety are causing some people to make drastic changes to their lives. According to The Independent, a growing number of people in the UK no longer want to have children due to an impending fear about the future state of our planet. Caroline Hickman, a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, states that the IPCC report has made people feel like they’re being “hit over and over again or like having eight alarm clocks in your bedroom”. The article also states that despite 70% of Brits wanting urgent political action on climate change, the government is failing to implement the correct measures to meet their future targets.
The effects of eco-anxiety are causing some people to make drastic changes to their lives
But, surely there is a solution to what appears to be a bleak future for our planet? The Conversation reports that eco-anxiety should be dealt with as a social and collective problem. Much of this involves sourcing renewable forms of energy that can replace fossil fuels. Collective action targeted towards young people is especially important. The organisation Force for Nature was established to help young people ‘realise their potential’ to create change and to take a stand against climate change. This emphasis on collective action will help increase optimism for young people as well as encourage change for the future.
The impact of climate change on mental health deserves greater recognition as a rational response to a very real and serious problem. Research is important but so is finding ways to shape a renewable future. From lobbying politicians to taking part in national protests, the solution to this problem must be a collective one. The comfort of establishing emotional and moral support with like minded people should not be underestimated. Overall, the key to fighting climate change is to ensure that no community goes unrepresented, no voice unheard. This outlook will provide guidance for generations to come on how to cope with the seemingly endless downward spiral of eco-anxiety.