As millions of people around the world prepare to join young activists for global climate change action this week, a leading psychotherapist from the University of Bath is warning of rising levels of eco-anxiety among young people.
Caroline Hickman, from Bath’s Department of Social & Policy Sciences and the Climate Psychology Alliance, suggests that eco-anxiety – anxiety about ecological disasters – now affects more children than ever before.
Previous studies have found that 45% of children suffer lasting depression after surviving extreme weather and natural disasters. Eco-anxiety predicated on climate change, she suggests, is a very rational fear based on events and stories from around the world, underpinned by the weight of evidence that our climate is changing.
Based on her research talking to children about their feelings about climate change, Caroline Hickman argues that young voices pressing for urgent change could act as a rallying cry to politicians around the world.
As part of her research, Hickman has interviewed children in the UK and in the Maldives – one of the parts of the world already severely affected by climate change. With the Climate Psychology Alliance, she facilitates workshops in the UK for young people to share their concerns about the climate and ecological emergency, including going into schools; and for parents and teachers looking for advice on how to support children.
She explains: “Talking to children about climate change gives a fresh perspective on the absurdity of doing so little about the climate emergency and also highlights for young people the troubling disconnect between what politicians say and what they do.
“On the one hand, the UK Parliament votes for a climate emergency, whilst on the other it votes to expand an airport. In Brazil, scientists conclude that the Amazon is the world’s best store for climate-warming CO2, yet large swathes of it are burned deliberately to make room for methane-belching cattle. And in Australia, despite warnings, a vast coal mine gets approved near the Great Barrier Reef.
“Broken promises and inaction coupled with the enormity of the climate crisis are all beginning to take their toll on children’s mental health.”
Given the looming challenges posed by sea level rises and biodiversity loss, Hickman suggests that awareness and concern about rising ‘eco-anxiety’ should become a catalyst for change.
She adds: “In my experience children bear the emotional burden of climate change much more courageously than adults, but we owe it to them to share it. We all need to do more to listen to young people when they talk about climate change. Through their experiences we’ll all learn more about how we should take responsibility for the mess, apologise and start to act.”
Caroline Hickman with the Climate Psychology Alliance is currently working with organisations around the world on raising the issue of eco-anxiety. This includes through the new ‘Climate, Anxiety, Agency’ project at the Science Gallery, London.
In addition, she has recently contributed a chapter to the seminal book on the topic ‘Climate Psychology - On Indifference to Disaster’ by leading climate psychologist Paul Hoggett. She is also working with Greenpeace and the Presencing Institute to develop alternative street schools for children who are ‘climate striking’.
Read more from Caroline, including recent articles for The Conversation 'I'm a psychotherapist here's what I've learned from listening to children talk about climate change' and 'What psychotherapy can do for the climate and biodiversity crisis'.
Hear Caroline discussing eco-anxiety and the responses of young people on Radio 4 The World at One (starts at 41 minutes) friom earlier this week.