Helping young people address anxiety caused by climate change

How to help young people address climate anxiety

Australians are increasingly concerned about climate change, with good reason. We only need to read the latest science or news to see the enormity of the problem.

Australian land areas have warmed by 1.4 degrees over the past century, with increased extreme fire weather days and longer fire seasons projected to continue. Our oceans are warming and becoming more acidic. Failure to curb climate change will result in dangerous weather becoming even more severe and widespread.

A new report states that anticipated threats to, or actual losses, of our natural world from the impacts of climate change are being increasingly recognised as having significant psychological impact, especially in young people. This report follows the findings of an international study of over 10,000 young people, reporting 59 per cent were very or extremely worried. This study found that mental health impacts, including climate anxiety and distress, are correlated with perception of governments' inaction. Forty-five per cent of the 10,000 Australian youth surveyed in Awareness to Action felt uncertain about the future.

Health professionals are seeing people of all ages, but especially young people, with a mixture of powerful and difficult emotions including anxiety, anger and a great deal of grief. They report feeling powerless and frustrated.

Validation, including believing young people's distress about real threats and losses from climate change, encouraging values-based action to work together towards environmental sustainability, supporting youth-led climate movements, and demonstrating effective responses from trusted adults to the challenge of climate change is imperative.

Dismissal, denial, invalidation or minimisation of the young person's real experience of climate change as a threat and the failure of adults and leaders to respond appropriately, for example by calling them irrational or silly, is worse than unhelpful.

Parents are grappling with how to support their children envisaging a changed future within their lifetimes. We urgently need to provide parents, teachers, school counsellors, school chaplains, community, and religious groups - those to whom young people may seek support in the face of threat imposed by climate change - with the knowledge, confidence and skills to respond to these real concerns.

This needs to be done without harmful invalidation or blaming them or their scientific informants for such alarm, or becoming overwhelmed and ineffective themselves.

Children and teenagers need to learn about the factual scientific reality of human-made climate change. Avoidance and denial of this information is ultimately more harmful than providing support to cope with the reality.

We must facilitate structured, safe and respectful discussion in classrooms of the wide-range of communal beliefs, attitudes and knowledge regarding the cause of creeping and catastrophic environmental events, like droughts, extreme fires and floods.

We must underpin these discussions with a clear understanding of the scientific reality and its implications. Mental health professionals need to undertake this together with educators, school ethicists, and those attuned to young people's cultures and spiritualities to help those affected make sense of what has happened, and help them to develop resilience and a sense of agency in a time of crisis.

If people experience clinically significant mental health distress in response to climate change they need access to assessment and treatment from appropriately trained health professionals.

Future planning for mental health prevention and treatment in Australia must consider the increasing rates of community distress, mental health disorders including self-harm, alcohol and substance abuse and suicidal behaviour, with rising temperatures, environmental changes like drought, and increased other extreme weather events.

However, young peoples' anxieties about climate change can be substantially addressed outside of the consulting room, by empowering them to speak up and take action, as a way to support their wellbeing. An articulate 17-year-old recently responded clearly to ill-informed, inaccurate comments about climate change distress by two liberal MPs.

Importantly, our leaders, including the Australian federal government, must fulfill their duty of care by acknowledging and acting on the clear medical and scientific evidence to combat global heating and its impacts.

With the Glasgow climate conference two weeks away, Australia's leaders must actively participate at this major summit and commit to urgent action - this decade.

If you need help, call Lifeline 13 11 14.

  • Dr Lisa Juckes is a psychiatrist, member of the RANZCP Section of Youth Mental Health and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia
This story How to help young people address climate anxiety first appeared on The Canberra Times.