Sophie Handford is 18, but instead of spending her time doing normal 18-year-old things, she’s the national coordinator for School Strike for Climate in New Zealand.

Oh, and she says she’s terrified. “I live right by the beach and even just seeing my own home, the threat that that might have to my own home in fifty years time, let alone the effect that climate change is already having on the Pacific Islands, is really frightening to me,” she said at a panel on social action as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Sustainability Week.

Increasingly, young people are having to not only shoulder the burden of organising a response to the climate crisis, but also taking on the psychological toll of reckoning with potential global catastrophe.

Mental health threatened by climate crisis

As far back as 2007, a survey of children aged 10 to 14 in Australia found more than four in 10 were worried about climate change and air and water pollution. A full quarter of those surveyed “are so troubled about the state of the world that they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older”.

This is increasingly termed “eco-anxiety”, defined in a 2017 American Psychological Association paper as “an additional source of stress” originating in “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations”.

Dr. Emma Woodward is the director of psychological services at the Child Psychology Service, a nationwide child psychology network. She told Newsroom that these issues are becoming more common.

“It definitely is prevalent. We’re seeing rises in mental health issues – anxiety, depression, stress – and I think that is potentially an unconscious reaction to what we’re feeling in society today,” she said.

“We’ve got this big looming threat around climate and whether we are at the start of the sixth mass extinction, the twilight of humanity. These are big things to be dealing with and people can either go into avoidance or become unhappy and depressed. What we’re seeing is an impact of all of that coming together.”

The APA paper includes a section about children’s emotional responses to climate change by Dr. Elizabeth Haase. Haase catalogues children who develop obsessive-compulsive behaviours in response to climate change, “such as picking up every piece of garbage on the way to school or running relentlessly through ‘what if’ scenarios”.

“One young patient, terrified that climate ruin would leave him poisoned by toxins, developed a rigid nightly schedule of self-improvement to prepare and educate himself. Only by checking off every evening ritual could he ward off panic attacks and insomnia.”

Others are “developing stomachaches or other physical symptoms to express upset, as did one child when his school cafeteria refused to recycle”.

Children increasingly shoulder the burden of change

The stress is exacerbated when children are not only forced to deal emotionally with the climate crisis but also to interact with it on a daily basis. Handford says that she is one of the oldest people involved in the school strike movement in New Zealand.

“We have kids as young as eight organising their own events in their communities,” she said. “These kids are having to use their childhood [to fight for the climate], when they should be out playing on the playground and hanging out with their friends, because this is placing such a big weight on their shoulders at such a young age.”

“The fact that that weight and that burden of the climate crisis is falling on them already is also, I find, quite scary to think about.”

The reason that young people are having to act, Handford said, is because adults won’t. “We care because it’s too important not to. And if our leaders aren’t acting like the adults that we need and the leaders that we need to take us through this crisis, then we have to and we will,” she said.

“Our leaders still see us young people as the leaders of tomorrow and play political ping-pong with our futures across the tables of the debating chamber in Parliament.”

Sophie Handford at the School Strike for Climate on March 15, 2019. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Emotional issues are perfectly rational

The mental health of children is a serious concern, but Jonathan Oosterman, a lecture in Victoria’s School of Social and Cultural Studies worries about medicalising these reactions.

“Of course there’s that concern that children are particularly vulnerable,” he said, but pointed out that to a certain extent these reactions are rational. By seeing it purely as a medical issue, that could downplay the magnitude of the crisis.

“If you expressed these sorts of strong emotions about the climate crisis, it’s used as an excuse to say, ‘Well, look, that person’s just got a problem,’” Oosterman said.

“I’m not going to say that pharmacology has no place, but I’d be cautious about it. There’s a lot of literature and theory about the way that medicalisation can be used to avoid social problems.”

Woodward agrees that these emotions are expected. “They are rational. Anxiety is a completely rational response to a threat or perceived threat. [Climate change] is a very real, existential threat, so feeling anxious in the face of that is the appropriate response,” she said.

“It’s whether we let that anxiety overpower us and overwhelm us and that puts us into a state of panic and inaction that’s the issue.”

Eco-anxiety as a motivator

These problems also aren’t new. “Quite often in the literature, there are comparisons made with the nuclear threat. Of course it’s horrible that children have to be coping with that,” Oosterman said, but the psychological threat isn’t unprecedented.

Instead, Oosterman wants to view these reactions through a positive lens, as an actionable symptom.

“If there is, more broadly in society, a sustained effort to come to terms with these difficult emotions, that’s going to put us in a much better situation to respond to children and to support them with their emotional processing,” he said.

“Maybe we can think about this in a positive way. It’s a necessary part of that climate transformation. It can convince adults to both take the necessary emissions reductions and take the emotional impact seriously.”

The question of hope

Woodward agrees. “We need to focus on what can be done rather than what can’t be done,” she said.

She sees these issues through the lens of hope theory, which posits that hope requires a goal, agency (goal-directed energy) and pathways (planning to meet goals). Therefore, hopelessness comes from a lack of one, two, or all of these elements.

As it stands, the goal is clear: a low-emissions future. Increasingly, the pathways are obvious as well.

All that’s missing is the agency, actually moving along those pathways towards the goal. In order to reclaim hope, people need to engage in climate action.

“If we focus on what we can do and pushing the limits of that into trying to get other people on board, then we feel we have a sense of agency. We feel we’re more in control and can manage our anxiety rather than become overwhelmed,” Woodward said.

That’s what Handford has experienced as well. “I’ve felt, up until the school strike movement, incredibly disempowered and helpless in relation to this,” she said. “I think it’s important that we bring those younger people in but also make them feel empowered and supported to actually play a roll in the solution as well so that it doesn’t take a toll on their mental health.”

“Ultimately,” she concluded, “I feel more hopeful than ever”.

* Victoria University of Wellington is a sponsor and supporter of Newsroom.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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