The upcoming COP26 convention on climate change will be a watershed moment for future generations. But with increasing heat waves, floods, wildfires, and access to endless information, the mental health of young people is declining. Jowharspoke to several young people suffering from weather anxiety about their fears and feelings of betrayal, pain and loss of hope.
Filipino climate justice activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan pauses briefly before admitting her distress in a video posted on Twitter. “I grew up afraid of drowning in my own room,” says 23-year-old Tan, “due to typhoons and floods that would devastate my home year after year, becoming more and more intense.” Above the video is a call to action, a call to combat climate anxiety.
Recent record-breaking heat waves, floods and wildfires have caused extensive damage to human livelihoods. Millions of people around the world are being displaced due to climate change. But the impact this will have on mental health and conversations about the psychological consequences have only recently come to the fore.
64% of children and young people said governments were not doing enough to prevent a climate catastrophe, a new study shows. To truly address our growing climate anxiety, we need justice. #WeFeelThisToo pic.twitter.com/cHn2tq7qPH
– Mitzi Jonelle Tan #UprootTheSystem (@mitzijonelle) September 15, 2021
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines climate or ecological anxiety as a “chronic fear of environmental ruin.” It is not a mental health illness, but a rational response to deep-seated uncertainty, and in the most advanced cases, it can affect a person’s daily functioning. And while everyone may be anxious about climate change, 16 to 25-year-olds are particularly vulnerable, according to research recently published in The Lancet.
That sinking feeling
In the first large-scale observation of climate anxiety in children and youth globally, nine researchers from universities in the US, UK and Finland met and surveyed 10,000 people aged 16-25 in Australia, Brazil , France, Finland, India and Nigeria. , The Philippines, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.
More than half of those surveyed (54%) said that their feelings about climate change negatively affected their day-to-day functioning. Three-quarters said the future was scary, with anxiety levels higher in countries like the Philippines, Brazil and India, where climate change is most visible. About 60% of those surveyed admitted to being extremely concerned about climate change, and more than 50% said they felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty.
Megan Morgan, who was born and raised in England, remembers dealing with similar emotions triggered by climate change since she was 7 years old. “I went to a fairly progressive elementary school … One day a team came to talk about climate change, landfills filling up and the ice caps melting. I remember asking, ‘What happens when all the landfills are full and all the polar ice caps melt?’ I don’t remember his answer, but that was the moment when I realized my own mortality. It was a momentous moment for me. ”
After that day, Morgan experienced an onset of panic attacks. “Every time it rained heavily or flooded, I felt inconsolable,” he says. “Of course, it was never about the rain. I couldn’t even hear the words ‘global warming’ without having a sinking feeling. ”
Morgan, now 24, still suffers from weather anxiety, but says it feels more like stress. She explains that she is concerned about the advances that societies are making, without taking into account the changes necessary to stop the destruction of the environment.
However, what he struggles with the most is feeling powerless. “Of course I can use a metal straw, eat vegan, or make ethical shopping decisions. But compared to the oil pouring into the oceans, it is a miniscule effort. There is no responsibility, no changes are made. ”
Betrayal of generations
Expanding on the APA definition of weather anxiety, psychotherapist and researcher Caroline Hickman adds the feeling of betrayal. “It is not just about anguish over environmental problems. Climate anxiety is also accompanied by despair, disappointment and betrayal by people in power who do not act, ”he says. The lack of responsibility Morgan feels is common among young people struggling with weather anxiety.
Miguel, a 22-year-old Scotsman, feels the same way. “I learned about environmental problems in school, but I always understood it as something that scientists would fix. As time went by, I found it increasingly worrying that, despite the availability of meaningful knowledge about the problem, no action was being taken, ”he says.
What Miguel and Morgan refer to is what Greta Thunberg has called a “betrayal of generations.” Climate change is no longer a theoretical or distant threat. The world is increasingly aware and informed of the consequences, which will disproportionately affect young people.
“It’s the older generations that don’t do the right thing for the younger generations, and that feels like a form of betrayal and abandonment,” Hickman says. “Some of the young people I am working with are suicidal due to this betrayal. Not because of environmental issues, but because they are so devastated at being sorely abandoned by people in power that they are supposed to take care of us. ”
Hickman explains that this betrayal can cause moral damage. It begins to erode trust in all the structures of society that are supposed to take care of a person, causing great distress in the young. While older adults may have had more experiences and been “hardened” by life’s betrayals, young people are now moving away from the attachment, trust, and security needs of early childhood.
“I feel a mixture of emotions,” says Miguel. “Sometimes it is a sadness for what we have lost and are losing, sometimes it is a sense of abandonment, as the people who are supposed to guarantee a livable future completely fail to provide the bare minimum for current and future generations to simply survive “.
Sorry seems to be the hardest word
Elouise Mayall, a researcher and ecologist at the University of East Anglia, believes that it is vital that people in power display forms of emotional intelligence when it comes to climate change. “Having cold, rational leaders doesn’t help with a situation that is primarily psychological and emotional. We are dealing with feelings such as pain or fear in young people, they are not robotic things ”, he explains. Acknowledging past mistakes and apologizing may be symbolic, but you think it will help young people feel seen.
In his workshops with youth suffering from weather anxiety, Hickman often apologizes. “It may not be Shell or a government, but I am an adult and I recognize that it is my generation’s fault and that brings them immense relief. They feel validated and seen. ”
While the obvious solution to ending climate anxiety is to take immediate action and stop damaging the planet, nations are still trying to minimize the need to move away from fossil fuels before COP26. That’s why finding a community and working with young people to transform their anxiety into action, as the youth-led NGO Force Of Nature does, is crucial, according to Hickman and Mayall.
For Miguel, “action is the antidote to climate anxiety”. It wants leaders, governments, and other vested interests, such as fossil fuel companies, to be held accountable for its decisions.
As for Megan, she also wants to reverse the betrayal. “I want to feel confident that those in power really care about our home. [and finding solutions] to save him and act [upon them] immediately, ”she says. “I want them to act now. Not in 2025, not in 2030. Now. “