A growing number of children are being treated for “eco-anxiety” as concerns surrounding climate change and its effects continue to mount.
Climate change is real and its impact is being felt in communities across much of the US, according to a federally mandated report released last year. Among the many repercussions, human health and economic stability have seen declines as the environment suffers. Just this year, the Great Barrier Reef's condition was downgraded to “very poor” as the Amazon rainforest burns, spreading associated carbon monoxide across the globe. Greta Thunberg, 16, successfully sailed to the US to bring awareness to the issue and school-age children across the country are gearing up to walk out of school in protest of inaction.
Amidst the headlines, an increasing number of anxiety and stress cases fueled by climate change are being recorded by specialists. Caroline Hickman of the Climate Psychology Alliance and Bath University recently spoke to The Telegraph of her experiences listening to children experiencing eco-anxiety, noting that some have even been treated with psychiatric drugs.
“A lot of parents are coming into therapy asking for help with the children and it has escalated a lot this summer,” she told The Telegraph.
“The symptoms are the same [as clinical anxiety], the feelings are the same, but the cause is different. The fear is of environmental doom – that we're all going to die.”
Anxiety is characterized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) with excessive anxiety and worry that is difficult to control paired with other symptoms, such as restlessness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and issues sleeping. Though eco-anxiety is not included in this listing, studies suggest that people experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of natural disasters. In 2017, a report conducted by the American Psychological Association analyzing “climate grief” found that increasing the visibility of climate change impacts results in feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and depression.
“Any of the interlinked problems within climate change – poverty, inequality, loss of treasured places, species extinction, threats to our well-being or livelihood – can hook us emotionally and intellectually. These issues lead to feelings of curiosity and insight, as well as fatigue and despair,” the researchers wrote. They added that clinicians can help individuals by identifying specific issues that “activate their unique vulnerabilities or personal worries” and help them to come up with a specific plan that gives them a sense of control.
When it comes to younger generations whose brains are still developing, Hickman notes that parents and adults need to find “age-appropriate and not terrifying” words to help children put descriptors to their feelings.
“You need to separate what is fact from what is unknown: tell them some species are going extinct and some humans are being harmed, but don’t say we’re all going to die, because that isn’t true,” she told the Telegraph. “What you don’t want is that child to collapse in a well of depression saying 'what’s the point in going to university', or 'what’s the point of doing my exams', which I have heard children say.”
Instead, parents should engage in a four-step strategy to first introduce children gradually to the facts, discuss feelings, acknowledge that the outcome is uncertain, and agree on a practical plan to make a difference.