by Rhiannon Hawkins
Image credit to Quint Fit
Since the actions of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg taking to the streets on a school strike against climate change in 2018, young people (aged 16-25) have become more aware and willing to act about environmental degradation affecting our planet. However, this is causing increased distress amongst young people due to the lack of action taken by international governments and corporations in tackling climate change. This is known as Eco Distress. So, what is Eco Distress?
As defined by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Eco Distress is experienced when people hear about or witness events which are causing the environment and our planet damage (Usher et al., 2019). This may trigger feelings of anxiousness, fear, anger, and desperation (Usher et al., 2019). If you are feeling like this, it is ENTIRELY NORMAL as Eco Distress is not an illness or disease but shows that you care about the planet and its future!
As Greta Thunberg says:
“If you feel bad so many people are feeling so sad and depressed but that’s a good thing as they still have empathy, they don’t want to live in this world where they have lost everything.”
There are many young people across the globe who are also feeling the same way, so if you’re feeling like this you are not alone, if it helps, I feel like this too.
Psychiatrists and researchers have been investigating the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on young people’s mental health. The most recent and global study surrounding Eco Distress is led by Professor Caroline Hickman and her team from the University of Bath.
The study results indicate that 83% of respondents believe that people have failed to do enough to protect the planet and 75% believe that the future is frightening (Hickman et al., 2021). This shows that Eco Distress and anxiety surrounding climate change is believed to be widespread across the globe and having knock-on impacts for future generations living on this planet.
These statistics are also shown to be the tip of the iceberg, with many climate activists experiencing anxiety and Eco Distress are going on to experience ecological burnout. This can often be the case with activists becoming traumatized through reading and acting against climate change so intensively (Pihkala, 2019). Therefore, the lack of action by institutions and witnessing so many incidents of environmental degradation can cause psychiatric symptoms associated with experiencing events of serious trauma, such as compassion fatigue (Pihkala, 2019).
Environmental conditions caused by climate change and climate related trauma during childhood can also cause considerable damage to our brain function. This can lead to further risk of developing other psychiatric disorders. For example, exposure to high levels of air pollution means when we breathe ultrafine toxic particulates, they are transported from the nasal cavity via nerve endings to the brain (Van Susteren & Al-Delaimy, 2020). This causes neuro-inflammation therefore, putting millions at risk of depression, bipolar and schizophrenia (Van Susteren & Al-Delaimy, 2020).
However, despite the physical implications of climate change on our mental health there are many things which can be done to help prevent anxiety surrounding climate change from affecting your day-to-day life.
Here are some top tips which I recommend:
Here are some links to online resources which can be helpful to help deal with Eco Distress:
Royal College of Psychiatrists:
The resilience project:
Force of Nature:
However, if you are struggling to deal with eco distress or it has become too overwhelming, please seek professional support either with the university counselling service or at your GP practice.
Hickman C., Marks E., Pihkala P., Clayton S., Lewandowski R E., Mayall E E., Wray B., Mellor C., & Van Susteren L. (2021). Young people’s voices on climate anxiety, government betrayal and moral injury: global phenomenon. Lancelet, pp. 1-23.
Pihkala, P. (2019). The cost of bearing witness to the environmental crisis: Vicarious Traumatization and dealing with secondary traumatic stress among environmental researchers. Social Epistemology, 1, pp. 86-100.
Usher K, Durkin J, Bhullar N. (2019). Eco‐anxiety: How thinking about climate change‐related environmental decline is affecting our mental health. Int J Mental Health Nursing, 28:1233-1234.
Van Susteren, L. & Al-Delaimy, W. (2020). Health of People, Health of Planet and Our Responsibility: Climate Change, Air pollution and Health. Springer Open, 1, pp. 1-414.