Melting ice caps and mental health: Ecoanxiety in youth climate activists

Two individuals perched contemplatively on a rocky pier.

Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison, Connecticut (2021) (Zoey England/University of Connecticut).

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Climate, Colleges & Education, Natural Disasters, Public Health, Science Communication, Storyfest 2022

Growing up in coastal Virginia, I was well-accustomed to the hurricanes, floods, and the onslaught of mosquitoes that followed during the summer months.  When schools would close for days at a time due to impending weather, we were thrilled! Shortly after my 11th birthday, Hurricane Sandy hit my community, flooding roads and washing out bridges. We escaped the superstorm’s greatest impacts, but others were not so fortunate.  

Over the span of a few short years, we would weather six more ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ hurricanes: Arthur, Matthew, Florence, Michael, Dorian and Isaias. I watched as the beaches I built sandcastles and collected seashells on in the summer permanently slipped into the lapping waves. The marshes where I would watch egrets and herons play became too flooded to reach. And the neighborhood dock where I launched kayaks from became inaccessible most hours of the day. 

One evening, I was attending a town meeting for a school assignment when it clicked that the “nuisances” I was experiencing were actually the direct impacts of climate change. And it was only going to get worse if we, both youth and adults, did not act together. I jumped into climate advocacy, much of which centered around human health, balancing it with my other obligations as a high schooler. Lying awake at night, I would wonder why others couldn’t see the problem at hand or join in to help find solutions to rising tides and a warming climate.

Chatting with Sena Wazer, currently 17-years-old and the Co-Director of the Connecticut chapter of Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist organization with hubs operating in major cities around the United States, I realized she had a similar experience that threw her into action. Initially passionate about the impacts of altering ocean temperatures on whales, Sena quickly realized climate change was a far more expansive issue after reading a report published by the United Nations when she was 14 years old. 

“I was concerned and upset about the issues facing whales and the oceans, but they were far away from me. The report made it seem like climate change was a much more personal issue and that I had the responsibility to act or I risked losing control of my future,” Sena said. 

Our experiences as young people are far from uncommon. In fact, there’s a name for it: ecoanxiety. While not an actual psychological diagnosis, the American Psychological Association defines it as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future.” 

Although ecoanxiety impacts all ages, its influences are disproportionately felt among young people. A recent research preprint in The Lancet surveyed more than 10,000 people ages 16-25 across ten countries, finding 59% of respondents were “very or extremely worried” about the impacts of climate change and more than 84% were “at least moderately worried”. 

Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, young people working in climate advocacy would come together at rallies, public forums and other community events to validate and support each other and amplify their voices. During lockdown, youth activists increased their presence on platforms like Twitter and Instagram to continue advocating for change, finding it a far from viable substitute for in-person gatherings.  “The pandemic made the work much harder,” Sena noted. “I gain the most energy and excitement from interacting with others equally as passionate about finding solutions to climate change as I am. Overnight, the opportunities to do that were gone.” 

These existing feelings, compounded in many by COP26’s resolution, make the importance of prioritizing mental well-being as a climate activist paramount. Some universities have developed academic courses and workshops aimed at mitigating ecoanxiety among their students, including institutions like the University of Washington, University of Helsinki, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and University of Connecticut

Dr. Prakash Kashwan, Associate Professor of Political Science and one of the contributors to the UConn course, notes, “This generation is grappling with 500 years of mistakes and missteps.  While it is essential to acknowledge the importance of change, we must balance these thoughts with the knowledge [that] one person cannot fix climate change.”  

Understanding what sustainable activism looks like in practice is vital.  For Sena, this meant learning how to delegate to a team as well as understanding that she doesn’t have to be doing everything (engage with policymakers, work with community stakeholders, organize youth,  manage events, and more) to effect meaningful change. “Fear can only drive you so far before you burn out,” Sena said, noting that learning how to be an activist continuing to push for climate policy while prioritizing her mental well-being is an ongoing process.

When I personally feel overwhelmed by the changes needed to prevent accelerated climate change, I step away from whatever I’m doing to head outside adventuring with my dog or spend time with my loved ones. I’m also conscious when it’s time for me to unplug from Instagram and turn off Twitter, especially when climate change-related messaging is intermingled with other content on my feed. 

Experts suggest that cultivating mindfulness skills, fostering optimistic approaches, and practicing active coping help immensely to lessen anxiety among climate activists. Prioritize healthy habits, including cooking meals and exercising. Set aside time to engage with family, friends, and other social groups, being intentional about having non-climate related discussions. 

Understanding when it’s time to seek professional help is equally significant, particularly when thoughts of ecoanxiety or climate grief impact day-to-day functions. If this is the case, having a conversation with a healthcare provider will help locate both clinical and non-clinical resources available in a community to treat related impacts. 

Ecoanxiety support groups have begun to spring up, including U.S.-based Good Grief Network and Climate Psychology Alliance in the U.K. Health care professional organizations, led by the American Psychological Association and American Public Health Association, have launched toolkits and webinars to arm providers with tools needed to assist patients experiencing change-related mental health problems.

As wildfires rage, hurricanes form, and carbon metrics are not met, it’s critical for young people to know––either acting as an individual or collective––they are not solely responsible for bearing the burden of climate change-related inaction by others. To foster effective, long-term climate advocacy, building skills to protect the mental and physical well-being of young people working in the space must be the first priority.

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climate change, ECO:Nomics, mental health, storyfest, youth climate movement

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