Ideas emerging from week one at COP26

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Professor Bernadka Dubicka, our Editor in Chief of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Journal (CAMH), and recent chair of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (CAP) Faculty RCPsych, has been at COP26. In this blog post Bernadka talks about what she has learned from the first week of the global climate conference.

  1. Today is youth day, but for all the talk of youth empowerment, there is very little evidence of a serious focus on children and young people (CYP), and mental health (MH) barely gets a look in.RCPsych has rightly declared a mental health emergency in parallel to a climate and ecological emergency, but this is an alien concept at COP26. However, our presence at this summit allows us to repeatedly bring mental health to the table, whichever meetings we happen to attend.
  2. Not everyone shares the RCPsych focus on the mental health impacts of the ecological disaster. Our recent CAP survey found that about half of respondents did not see this as a priority in CAMHS – and this is from a biased sample who were interested enough to complete the survey.Many mental health professionals I speak to on the ground are too burnt out and worried about frontline services to think beyond this.Of course, the climate is a leading priority for the College. However, the ongoing and future impacts of the ecological disaster on our children are profound, including displacement and loss by climate events, and consequent trauma. The future burden on services is inconceivable.Some leading organisations also do not regard the mental health aspects as a priority. Yesterday I attended a press conference by UNICEF who are an excellent organisation and have done a lot of vital work to support CYP globally, but in their 2021 report on global CYPMH, the impacts of the ecological crisis are nowhere to be seen in the summary and recommendations.
  3. Giving a voice to children and young people, building resilience and supporting children and young people to engage in civic action (see our new CAMH paper) is important. However, to truly empower young people they need a political voice – in democracies like ours, young people must be given the vote at 16. Scotland is leading the way in this – why can’t the UK government do the same? If young people are assumed to have mental capacity at 16, surely they have capacity to vote?
  4. Which brings us to how children and young people are portrayed in the mainstream media and also at this conference. Benoit and colleagues discuss how CYP are variously described as ’fierce activists, adultified children, innocent victims or ultimate saviours’. Is it any wonder they turn away from mainstream media and politics?
  5. Money talks: without financial levers, there is little hope of action. Yes leadership is important, but leaders, including in the NHS, change constantly – the NHS and more global action on sustainability cannot rely on leadership alone.I attended a climate change talk from Columbia University where climate change scientists are linking with different sectors to model the impacts of more immediate climate events.If we could do this for the NHS, we could highlight the economic case for immediate action – think about the direct impacts of floods, fires, heatwaves and displacement on mental health services, and children are the most likely to suffer with trauma, depression and anxiety.We can’t afford to wait to see how our over-stretched resources will cope – we need to make the case now for prevention and investment.

This is not an issue that will go away on its own. Each and every one of us have a responsibility to our children, both individually and professionally. Lobby your CEO, your MP, highlight this at every opportunity, use our college resources (eco-distress information for young peopleeco distress information for parents and carerseco-distress resources for CAMHS). The climate and ecological crisis IS a CYP mental health crisis and prevention is the only way to go.

During the conference Bernadka spoke to two young people who explained their concerns about climate change, and how it affected their mental health.

We thank Bernadka for kindly letting us post this blog first published on the RCPsych website on 5 November.

As part of the lead up to the CAMH Special Issue on ‘Child and youth mental health & the global ecological crisis’ (due to be published in January 2022), ACAMH is proud to bring you a series of events, content, and special access Early View papers, focusing on the mental health implications of climate change. These can be found via links on this blog post.

About the Author

Dr. Bernadka Dubicka
Professor Dr. Bernadka Dubicka

Professor Bernadka Dubicka is a Consultant Psychiatrist at Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust, Honorary Professor at the University of Manchester, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Child and Adolescent Mental Health. She is the former Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) Child and Adolescent Faculty, where she played a leading role in developing the eco-CAMHS group; contributed to the RCPsych position statement on the ecological crisis; and has commissioned a special issue of CAMH on the ecological crisis (Feb 2022) with invited editor, Dr Ann Sanson. She attended COP26 in Glasgow as an RCPsych observer.

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