This was the first in a series of events leading up to the CAMH Special Issue on ‘Child and youth mental health & the global ecological crisis’, to be published in January 2022. This session was recorded on Tuesday 9 November 2021. Other FREE sessions coming up include Climate Change Impacting Mental Health – live from Australia & UK and CAMH Special Issue on ‘Child and youth mental health & the global ecological crisis’ session 1.
The slides from the event can be downloaded as a pdf version.
The chat from the event can be downloaded txt file. NB all surnames, apart for panellists have been deleted.
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Speaker 1: Hello. We are the association for child and adolescent mental health or ACAMH for short.
Andre Tomlin: Thank you, Matt. Good evening. Good morning. Good afternoon, everyone. Real pleasure to be chairing this session with my colleagues, Rhiannon and Douglas, give us a wave Rhiannon and Douglas. We three are chairing this meeting and we’ve got an hour to talk about climate anxiety in young people. Really important topic and great to see so many of you joining from all over the world, actually. We’ve got our usual mix of clinicians and people who work in mental health as well as quite a few other people. So, yeah. Do carry on introducing yourselves in the chat. And I will briefly tell you what we’re going to do in the next hour.
Andre Tomlin: So, we’re going to have three short conversations. We’re going to talk about the three E’s; experience, evidence, and engagement, and we’re going to start off with the voices of young people sharing their experiences of the climate crisis and how they believe it impacts on mental health, front and center. Then we’re going to have some clinicians and researchers who are going to be talking about the evidence on climate anxiety, what we know from it. And then finally, we’re all going to get together in a big panel at the end where we’re going to talk about engagement. So, what are we going to do as individuals personally, professionally, publicly, politically? What do we need to do to address this issue? And please do get involved in that conversation through the chat. So, share what you think as we go along, we will keep an eye on the chat. So, if you’ve got any questions or comments for our speakers, please put them in there. And Elisavet, who is our chat moderator this evening will… Hi, Elisavet, nice to see you… Will be looking at those and we’ll be showing those with us.
Andre Tomlin: And we’d also really like to see what you think right now. Matt, could you post that link into the chat as well? We’re going to start with a quick menti poll. And so, if you have a look in the Zoom chat, you’ll see this link popping up in a second and please click on the link and, there we go, go to this menti website. So, just open that up on your computer or on your phone, if you’d rather, and you will see a quick survey where we’re asking you a question. We’re asking you how you think climate change is affecting the lives of young people around the world. And you’ve got three little boxes that you can type some words into there. So, just a really brief response. Tell us what you think. And Matt, if you can share now the webpage with those poll results on, we’ll just be able to have a look at those coming through and see what people are thinking.
Matt: Mild panic, Andre.
Andre Tomlin: That’s all right. So, you should now see this on your computers. You should have the option now to fill in this question. And so, do that please over the next 15 or 20 minutes, and we’ll come to this at the end of the panel, that Rhiannon is going to be chairing while we’re going to be exploring this issue. So over to you Rhiannon, tell us first of all, a bit about yourself, introduce yourself, and then take us through this panel. Thank you.
Rhiannon Hawkins: Hi, everyone. My name’s Rhiannon and I’m a youth advocate at the Royal College of Psychiatry, and I am also helping contribute to the special issue of the ACAMH journal in January. And currently I’m studying geography at the University of Oxford. So, today I’ll be hosting the panel and what we are going to be talking about in the panel are what are the effects of climate anxiety on young people in particular, because young people are strongly impacted by ecological distress. So, I’m really honored to be joined today by several young people from around the world. So, I’d like you guys, if possible, if you could come on screen or whatever and introduce yourselves before we get started.
Jennifer Uchemdu: Hi Rhiannon, I’m happy to go first. Yeah, my name is Jennifer Uchendu. I’m from Nigeria. I’m also a youth climate activist and founder of an organization called SustyVibes. We’re basically a youth platform in Nigeria where young people come together and take action on environmental protection, take activities like tree planting, waste management, and the like. So, really good to be here to share my experience on climate anxiety and also how it’s affecting young people in Nigeria. Thank you.
Rhiannon Hawkins: And-
Rana: Yeah, should I go next?
Rhiannon Hawkins: Sorry, Rana.
Rana: Yeah, well, my name’s Rana. I’m part of the McPin Foundation. I’m 25 and I am really happy to be a part of this conversation. I feel that it’s much needed, so yeah, I’m really excited to be here right now. So, thank you.
Kira: Hi, everyone. My name’s Kira, I’m a student in Bristol at the moment. I’m 21 and I’m also part of the McPin Foundation and yeah, just really excited to be here to talk about young people and eco anxiety because I think it’s a really big problem, which isn’t really getting enough limelight at the moment.
Yasmin: Hi, I’m Yasmin. I’m also part of the McPin Foundation. I’m currently doing my masters at the University of York. And I guess my climate anxiety really stems from having family and things that are affected by climate change. So, I’m excited to talk about that more.
Rhiannon Hawkins: Fab. Thank you guys for introducing yourselves and I’m going to start off with Kira today. I’m just going to ask… We’re going to just go through some questions and feel free if you guys want to interject and come in and give your thoughts and opinions. So, Kira I’m just going to start off with you if that’s okay. And I’m going to ask you, can you start by telling us what an eco anxiety means to you?
Kira: Yeah. So, eco anxiety to me is feelings of worry and concern, anxiousness and fear directly related to global warming and climate change. And I know for me personally, these kind of feelings have quite, almost like physical manifestations. For example, being very stressed, very panicked. And I think this is an area that especially affects young people as we will see the impact of it the most over our lifespan. And it will force us into difficult situations and decisions such as where to live, food scarcity, and so on.
I also recognize that as I live in the UK, I am relatively lucky as I won’t be living in the worst affected areas of the globe. However, for eco anxiety, unlike other triggers for anxiety, where if you tend to think through the problem logically, it seems to feel smaller and you can calm yourself in that kind of process, I personally find that thinking through issues of climate change makes the problem seem bigger, and it can feel quite out of control of most individuals. So, it’s quite difficult to take direct traction on in the same way other problems triggering anxiety are.
Rhiannon Hawkins: Yeah, no, I totally empathize with that because I often feel the same way sometimes when you think about the bigger picture you often think, “Oh my gosh, how can I actually tackle this full on? How can I actually do anything about it?” But I think in the future, if we all collaborate and think about how this is triggering us, I think if we work together and not just worry about it as an individual problem, but think of it as a global problem and everyone has to resolve it often. I think, for me anyway, it relieves the burden of eco distress. But anyway, I’m going to move on to Jennifer. I’m going to ask Jennifer, how has climate anxiety affected young people in Nigeria, and how is it different from the global North?
Jennifer Uchemdu: Thank you, Rhiannon. That’s a very good question. Often times, people would ask if climate anxiety is even an African thing or something young people in the global South have to grapple with. And I would always say that, very early on starting SustyVibes and having a platform for young people, we already started to notice that feeling of overwhelm and that apprehension of saying, “What exactly are we doing? How far reaching can planting a tree in Nigeria really go in the large scheme of affairs where we see the news and all of the catastrophe happening?” So, in Nigeria I feel like the more we know about the crisis, the more overwhelmed we get. So, it’s almost like the knowledge and the awareness of the issue quells the anxiety, and particularly for activists and environmentalists.
What we’ve seen is that experience of eco anxiety isn’t just… Because it’s a spectrum, yeah? Eco anxiety is a spectrum. So it could be fear, it could be anxiety, it could be overwhelmed, it could be powerlessness. And in my research and comparing with the global North, I see two distinct feelings that come out for us in Nigeria. There’s a lot of anger for us because when you look at the climate crisis in itself, it’s really an issue of injustice. It’s a social injustice problem. It’s rooted in exploitation and oppression and that really can be annoying and it can make you angry. So, a lot of us in the global South would relate more to anger compared to the shame and guilt that I often see with counterparts in the global North.
And also there’s the feeling of powerlessness. The fact that we grew up here and the power to the youth, the youth have all the power, but we don’t feel that power on our side of the globe, it’s that there is so much we know should be done or can be done, not just on the environmental side, but even with our governments and politically. So, that powerlessness often plays out also in our experience of eco anxiety. And definitely the more we know about it, the more angrier we get. Of course there’s a flip side to it and we know it’s not something to pathologize. We know that we’re concerned about the problem and we can build active hope working together through community action. So, that’s why organizations like mine and other platforms in Nigeria exist really to ensure that we continue to engage each other. We continue to work together as a group so that we just continue this marathon of working for climate action. So definitely those are the distinct differences I can immediately point out. Thank you.
Rhiannon Hawkins: No, thank you so much, Jennifer, for your insight. That is so valuable. And I think the audience here today would definitely value your experiences from a global site as well in being able to put together other how eco distress affects the global population in young people as a whole, because we often find that the global South is often neglected when we discuss about inequalities within mental health and mental health and climate justice, like my own personal experience, I went to COP on the weekend and I attended COP and it was still felt highly frustrating for delegates in my organization because they were very frustrated because the UN was still tokenizing their levels of knowledge, which they were giving out and their experiences.
And it’s so frustrating and I honestly feel your frustration because I think this is a global problem, but the lead world leaders don’t feel as if it is, they’re not willing to respond to that. So, thank you so much for your insights. Fantastic. Now I’m going to move on to Yasmin and I’m going to ask Yasmine if that’s okay, a question? Like many people living in the UK, you have family far away. So, in your instance, your family are based in Bangladesh. And what effect do you think climate anxiety has on families like your family?
Yasmin: So I think there’s definitely a lot of concern and anxiety with families like mine who still have family members abroad, like in Bangladesh. It cause a lot of anxiety for us. And there’s already concerns about poverty. There’s about a quarter of Bangladesh issues who are living below the poverty line, but with climate change that makes it even and worse. But we know about one in seven Bangladeshis will be displaced by 2050. So, that creates even more concern and other things like having my cultural background and being able to go back to Bangladesh and if I have to in the future, I’d want them to visit Bangladesh as well. But we know Bangladesh is going to be seriously affected with all the flooding that’s already going on and people losing their livelihoods.
So, it just creates a lot of anxiety for me really, to see what’s going to be happening to the country that my family’s from and how it’s going to be changing. Especially, it causes a lot of frustration as well, because Bangladesh is one of the countries that contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s one of the most vulnerable. So, it’s devastating to see that as well. And the way that I guess people are powerless in Bangladesh to the effects of climate change. And it just creates a lot of worry as well.
Rhiannon Hawkins: Yeah, no, no. I just feel you are stress through the computer as we’re talking right now. It’s just not fair. As Jennifer mentioned that climate is not an environmental crisis, it’s actually a crisis of social inequality and injustice within society. And I think once world leaders and once clinicians or once people have influenced and even everyday adults realize that it’s actually fundamentally built within social structures of society, I think we can continue to move on in the future. No, thank you so much for that.
And then finally, I’m going to move on to Rana and I’m just going to ask RH a quick question here and ask, many young people are questioning their life choices, for example, starting a family given the climate crisis, how has it affected your personal choices?
Rana: Yeah, so I’m the type of person that likes to have a very structured life. So, I know what I want to do at this age. And I’m at a point now where I’m thinking of starting a family, but more recently, there’s just a lot of question marks around that with the climate crisis. Recently, I’ve just got a lot of anxiety surrounding it. I’ve got this feeling of hopelessness, like impending doom and whether it’s worth having children now with all that’s going on. I read a lot, I try to educate myself on this topic and a lot of it’s very negative. So, I do read things where it says having a child now is probably worse than the OCO2 emissions annually.
And it really makes me think, so would having a child contribute to this? Would me having children make the situation worse, when obviously, we want to tackle this problem. And also at the same time, I’m thinking, am I going to sacrifice my happiness over this? And so, there’s a lot of confusion, anxiety. I just feel like even if I do have kids, what kind of world are they going to grow up in? And it’s just that, my grandkids, my great-grandkids. So, there’s just a lot to think about. And sometimes when I just think about all of this, I just go in a loop basically. I feel like there’s no way out. But yeah, so it is very anxiety provoking and I still don’t have any answers, to be fair. So yeah, that’s what goes on in my head.
Rhiannon Hawkins: No, no, I think a lot of people on this panel have probably at least had this run through our minds at least once or twice about like, what are we going to do in our future? Should we take up a career in environmental activism to be able to combat not just environmental activism, but in a soul to combat social inequality, as well as environmental justice? That’s definitely me running through my mind at the moment now making decisions for the future in terms of career choices. And I totally get where you’re coming from in terms of trying to decide what you want to do with your future because it’s so limiting, not knowing where are we going to go next? Because world leaders only seem to be thinking about the economy for next year or the fiscal budget, the economic budget for next year, or the political plan for the next political summit in four years time.
It’s never discussions about 20 years time, even now in terms of the Glasgow COP summit, in terms of discussing about 2030. They’ve only mentioned 2030, I think about five times when I was there. It was just very focused towards next year, not considering future impacts and I think that’s what perpetuates young people’s feelings and emotions. So, yeah. No, thank you so much panelists for contributing, and I’m going to hand over to Andre.
Andre Tomlin: Thanks, Rhiannon. Yeah, great stuff, everyone. We’re going to be hearing more from you all later, I’m sure. There is an irony here, isn’t there? That the people are so passionate about making a difference and addressing this issue are the ones that are probably the most affected in terms of their mental wellbeing by it. We certainly need to do a lot to support each other. And I think your point, Rhiannon, about working together on this is really key.
So, let’s have a quick look at what everybody in the webinar thinks about the impact of this climate crisis. Matt, can you share your screen again and see what the survey results are? Okay. So, that’s very hard to read, but I can read it out, I think. We’re seeing things like anxiety, hopelessness, worry, voices not heard, fears for the future. Yeah, so lots of fear and anger and worry and anxiety. So, I think that’s really echoing the points that were being made already by people on the panel. Good to see that confirmed. Thank you everyone for filling that in. There’s another survey that we’re going to come to later, but if you haven’t filled that survey in yet, then please do follow the link in the chat and get your comments in there.
So, now it’s time to move on to the evidence discussion that Douglas is going to be chairing. So, over to you Douglas for the next 20 minutes or so.
Douglas: Thank you very much Andre, and I would like to extend our particular thanks to the participants we’ve just heard from. This is straight from the horse’s mouth when we’re thinking about climate anxiety. I’m just going to move on now just to give a very quick overview of some of the evidence in climate change and how it affects anxiety. I started this off by thinking, well, there’s a huge amount of material out there. There’s a lot of evidence that needs to be sifted through. So, the way I went about this was just to do a quick and dirty search you might call it. I used open access resources, such as PubMed and Google Scholar, which is a very useful tool for this kind of thing. It gets around the fact that I’m not allowed access to all these databases because I’m only a taxpayer.
And as I said, I was focusing on reviews that have already been done rather than individual studies. And we’re going to hear it a little bit later about what primary research is telling us in this area. So, the first thing to say is just to underline what probably you already know, that climate change has a significant multifaceted impact on mental health. And a lot of the literature draws distinctions between direct impacts and indirect impacts. There’s quite a lot of evidence that’s been done looking at the effects of specific climate events, such as drought, storms, et cetera. And the evidence really is quite clear about the very severe impact on mental health of experiencing these events.
One study was estimating the prevalence of physical injury compared to mental distress is 40 to one. So there’s like 40 cases of mental distress for every physical injury associated with a climate event. People who already have, or are susceptible to mental distress are particularly vulnerable. And as are indigenous populations, poorer countries, and children and young people. The other thing to say is that these direct effects are often long lasting and highly disruptive. In spite of this, a lot of the stuff I was looking at did not mention mental health much or indeed at all. So, I think there’s still a bit of work for researchers to do, to make sure that mental health priorities are reflected in these kinds of study.
When I’m moving on to thinking about the indirect impact of climate change, and very much, we’d like to draw a line under the question that’s been raised by Jennifer about the injustice, the crime that’s been committed. This map is probably quite familiar to you. It shows you who does all the carbon dioxide emitting. And as you can see, it’s the global North. The second UNICEF map looks at where children and young people are most likely to be impacted and that’s the global South. So, the people who are living with the results of climate change are not the ones who’ve caused the problem. Now, we bring our children up to be moral people. We ask them to think about others, not to harm others, but then they grow up. They look at this and they think, “Wait a minute, that’s just all a big lie.”
So, it’s hardly surprising that this situation engenders eco anxiety, you might call this moral dissonance. It’s entirely predictable outcome. And a lot of the studies that have looked at it, talk about eco anxiety and frame it in this way as a potentially adaptive response to that dissonant situation. And of course, the same things are true. Existing susceptibilities are going to be exacerbated by this source of anxiety. We don’t have good estimates yet of the exact prevalence of such anxieties, partly because it’s hard to define and measure. We’ll look at that again in a minute. However, a recent scoping review of how mental health professionals approach eco anxiety emphasize the importance of meaning focused coping. So, activities that address the content of anxieties directly through relevant strategies and activities. Baudon’s review provides a lot more detail, which would be of particular interest to CAMH professionals.
If there is good news, it’s that it’s not all bad news. There is some evidence to show that we can improve mental health and tackle climate issues at the same time. Although comparative and longitudinal studies are lacking and systematic reviews very difficult, it looks like there are win-wins here. Responses to the direct climate impacts depending on local networks and systems. So, if we invest in those systems, we will improve resilience and reduce impact. Furthermore, individuals experiencing eco anxiety may benefit from involvement in relevant activities, further increasing, hopefully, the pressure on others to act. By listening and amplifying their voices, we may make a change.
So obviously, the answer here is fix the climate. But even if we do everything right at COP ’26, we’re still going to have these problems going forward. So, we need to invest in networks, which that cost, that money that we spend now is likely to be paid back in what we prevent in the future. So economically, as long as we do the sums right, it should make sense for develop countries to invest in less developed countries to build up the resilience of their systems. One of the problems we have here is that mental health outcomes are not represented in the types of calculations that investment banks and governments make. The short termism has caused this problem and still stuck in the short term way of thinking.
So, we need to ensure the impacts of climate change and the benefits of taking action are properly represented in these sorts of analysis. Many of the reviews that I found cautioned against pathologizing eco anxiety, and those are the sorts of concerns I’m sure professionals will be attuned to. However, mental health priorities, I feel, have suffered somewhat due to the fragmented nature of the research in this area. Just to say a little bit about that. We very often publish our research in a journal and it gets indexed in a database. And then if somebody else from a different discipline is searching, they might not think to search the database that our research is published in. Many of the reviews are what you might call gray literature. So, they’re not actually published in our journal and they’re not indexed in a conventional database. So, there’s a challenge for people like me to figure out how best to find this stuff and how to combine it so we have more powerful evidence to influence action.
So, there’s a lot to be done, and we all need to think about this. Just before I hand on to Laeila, I just wanted to present this very quick analysis that was done by Lawrence Atwell in the report, which I’ll include in my bibliography. And they did a quick search of PubMed, which is a medical database, and the New York times, which is a newspaper, to see what’s the overlap between climate change and mental health. And the answer was very little. So, for a more nuanced view, and to think more from the professional’s perspective of how we address these issues, I’m going to hand over to Laeila Benoit and she’s going to talk about her research into how young people’s perceptions of climate anxiety are represented in the literature and the response of adults to dealing with that anxiety.
Laeila Benoit: Thank you so much, Douglas. And thank you for having me in this panel. So, I’m Laeila Benoit, I’m a child and adolescent psychiatrist, so I’m from France and Brazil and I worked and studied in Paris. And now I’m working at TA University for my research project. So, the project focuses on a co-anxiety among children and adolescents from six years old to 18 years old, because it’s more difficult to ask them how they feel just using a survey because they are too young. So, we want to interview them to know more about what they think. So, we are interviewing children and adolescents in France, in the US, and in Brazil, to know more about their emotions and their climate actions, and so forth. We are very interested in how can we support the actions of the youngest one.
So before talking about maybe the results, like some of the results of the study, I just want to state very clearly something, is that actually the problem just as Rhiannon said, and Jennifer said, is a societal one. And we know that societal oppression, that social oppression, and repeated trauma, and adversity can lead to real mental health issue. So, it’s not because you have a mental health issue that you have to look for individual causes for genetics, for medication. No, if you are part of a minority and this minority is being oppressed, then it’s just normal, legitimate, that you will feel bad. So, in the sense, the global South is a minority, but we also have studies even in the US that shows that minorities in the US are more eco anxious than others.
So, women are more anxious, low income people are more anxious, African Americans, other colored people, Latinx are more anxious. And in this sense, all the of persons are part of minorities of oppressed people and the reasons they are anxious is that they know that they will be left behind, that they’re not taken into account, that they’re not listened to. And so, my understanding of the young generation, young people, is that they are also a minority, just like women, just like people of color. So, what do we have to do when we have a social problem, societal problem that causes us to feel bad? So, the answer is not medication. It’s not individual therapy. It can help, but the real answer is societal. It’s just action, collective actions. Like, let’s get together and don’t wait to be listened because they don’t want to listen. So, let’s take action and show that we are there and that we have poor.
So I think, as a psychiatrist, I have to remind us because psychiatrists usually say, “Oh, let’s go talk to someone. Let’s take medication.” No, no, no. This is a societal problem, so we have to take action together. And so, we showed in a recent study with my colleagues also that collective action are a good buffer for anxiety. It means that if you are anxious and you engage in collective action, then you start feeling better. And this is what people know. This is what racialized people know in the US. This is what women know in a lot of countries. This is what low income people know. We have to fight together. There is no other option. So, that’s being reminded, just a few things about what we found about children and how to talk about eco anxiety with them.
It’s just that they are exposed to climate change at school or through social media. So, they will have questions, and we will have to answer to them. So, maybe later on, I explain to you how to answer to them if you want.
Douglas: Thank you, Laeila, that was brilliant. And I’ll just remind folk that in the sidebar, we’ve got links to your podcast where you talk about your research in a little bit more depth, but I’m sure there may be a lot of parents on who would be interested to hear. And again, it goes back to the thing, this disrupts the relationship between parents and children. And I have children who are saying, “What’s my future?” And quite right. So, there isn’t anything more fundamental as social structure than that relationship. And this is one of the reasons why I feel we need to be banging on about these outcomes, because that’s going to rattle on down the future. And it’s going to be probably, possibly as harmful as climate change itself, if we lose that trust.
So, thank you. I’m going to hand over now very quickly to, we’re very pleased to have Dr. Lise Van Susteren, who’s our general and forensic psychiatrist from Washington, a co-founder of the climate psychiatry Alliance. And Lise is going to take us up a level. We’ve heard about individuals, and now we’re going to we’re going to take ourselves up a level in terms of action. Lise, over to you.
Lise Van Susteren: Thank you so much. And I’m really, really, very happy to be here with all of you. So, we have known the kids for suffering, and we now have the numbers to wave around the year for people who couldn’t imagine that young people would be upset hearing that their house was burning down and they might not survive. A global survey of 10,000 young people was released last month showing that climate anxiety is pervasive. Three quarters of those surveys said they were deeply anxious about the future, half of them report that it affects their daily lives, and 60% say government leaders are at fault. We stand on firm ground, firm, scientific ground with those who had been warning since Svante Arrhenius first talked about greenhouse gases over a hundred years ago, building on the testimony of Dr. James Hanson in the US Congress nearly 35 years ago, and indeed in kinship with the admissions of Exxon geologists themselves in the early seventies who said that climate change and specifically burning greenhouse gases could take us down.
We know we are in trouble. What to do? Making the case for what climate disruption is doing to our children is as persuasive a case as we shall ever see. It is the moral ground that can be seated to no one. And we have the data. We have the statements, the declarations, the pleas, the protests, children flooding the streets from Glasgow and beyond telling us they are angry, in despair, and afraid. We have everything we need to know about what trauma does to kids already, studies on ACEs, adverse childhood experiences, tell us. And with extreme weather events, our children are surrounded by climate adversity. We know that trauma exacts a psychological toll that can include not only the after effects of the physical harms, the losses, the injuries, displacements, but also direct psychological damage, PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse.
We know of the cognitive effects. The problems with the impulse control, concentration, judgment, and that these harms are not only enduring, which we’ve heard, they prime for future stress. Compounding the existing psychosocial threat through transgenerational, epigenic inheritance, trauma today can trigger our DNA to turn on a stress response that not only affects us, but can be passed in the on position to future generations. Many children suffer from pre traumatic stress with the same symptoms as classic PTSD but arising from images of future trauma they can’t get out of their heads. Do you know someone struggling with infertility? Sperm counts in American, Australian, and European men have plummeted by more than 50% in the last 50 years. Researchers link it in part to rising temperatures. We already have surging deaths of despair. And while the factors are complex, believing you may not have a future and knowing how contagious behaviors can be, how could we not worry about the ever increasing numbers?
Deep seated fears lead to existential questions about the survival, not only of other species, but about the survival of humans. And if we do survive, what will the world look like? Who will rule? Democracy is not a default form of government. Will another form of government be embraced and adopted because it fights climate change more effectively? Under what form of government will our children live? As a former CIA psychological profiler of war leaders, I fear for our democratic way of life. When people are afraid, we see a rise in authoritarian government because people turn to what they perceive as strong leaders to protect them and may be willing to give up their cherished values in exchange for the promise of perceived security.
The kids know they are being abandoned. They know government leaders are betraying them. How can we explain this intergenerational aggression? Is it the ultimate narcissistic blow to be dead when they are alive? We would have no trouble identifying the aggression of rich parents who left their estate in disarray to their children by the history of conflict. Is it worth analyzing this? Is it worth reminding lawmakers of how child abuse is defined? Not only as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, but also as the failure to provide an environment and which a child can thrive. Given the magnitude of the losses and their relentless expansion, despite all that we know, our children will soon give inaction on climate the name it calls for.
I’m sorry to say this. We call out state sponsored terrorism. How is inaction on climate, not state sponsored child abuse? In other news, before turning to the section on what we can do, I will offer this. Once we stop into increasing CO2 in the atmosphere, reaching net zero, climate scientist, Michael Mann says, “Temperatures will stop going up in as little as three to five years.” And do you know that in a single hour, enough solar energy reaches our earth to meet our needs for a whole year? And that wind provides 40 times what we need. We have a big job to do. And the most important one we will ever have probably, because we now must be working to change the course of history collectively towards survival.
Douglas: Brilliant. Lise, thank you very much. I wonder if we’ve got time for a couple of quick questions through from the sidebar. We had a question about pathologizing, which Andre has answered in the sidebar, but I wanted to ask this question about, there’s a concern that we might be treating young people all as a homogenous unit here. Whereas age ranges that professionals might see would be in a very wide range. So, is there anything you can say about the different perceptions and anxieties children might have at different stages of development? That would be a- [crosstalk 00:43:23]. Sorry, go ahead.
Laeila Benoit: Yeah, I can answer to this question. So, what we saw in our study is that children are more sad than adolescents, and they’re very sad because they are sad about animals dying. They just understand very concrete things like animals, but then they want to do something which is very interesting with children that they have also a lot of hope. So, they’re very willing to help as soon as there is an action to do, an activity, a solution. So, I think it’s an advice to give to parents or teachers that whenever they are engaged in a project, something to do, they’re really happy and they want to help.
For adolescent, we see the anger, Jennifer was talking about anger. So it’s, again, the anger of not being listened to, the indifference of government, and they also want to take the initiatives. So, they want to be follow, like to have an idea and we follow with them, but we also support them, not just to say, “Oh, that’s very good. So you are going to fix it, then fix it alone,” but really give them the means to manage to do what they want to do. So, those are very different things between children and adolescent. And maybe a lot of things about children also is that parents, more and more parents, are a little bit reluctant to talk about climate change with their children because they are afraid that the children are going to have nightmares or be anxious.
So, what we see is that when the parents do not explain their interest in climate change, even if they do climate actions, like, I don’t know, turn off the lights, stop eating meat, all those kind of things. The children don’t understand the context. So, the parents model something and the children repeat it, but they don’t know if their parents are interested in the environment. So, they grow up as adolescents, wondering if they’re really alone with the problem of climate change or if are some adults around being also concerned. So, I think it’s a good thing to say to parents is that we have to talk about the topic. The children will not bring it up on their own, but they want to know that the parents are concerned and that the parents are doing their part and that other families, they can do their part together. And then they really feel relieved. Actually, the anxiety comes from the indifference and the feeling of being alone.
Douglas: Okay. That’s brilliant. Thank you very much. So, danger of running over, we better hand on to the next session, but keep your questions coming and we’ll do everything we can either to answer them offline or to feed them into our next session.
Andre Tomlin: Wonderful. Thank you, Laeila, and Lise, and Douglas, that was really interesting. And yeah, we started really talking about what we’re going to do, which is great, because that leads us on very nicely to Rhiannon and her final panel. We hope we’ve got enough time for everybody who has spoken so far to have at least a minute or two to speak again before the end. So yeah, over to you, Rhiannon, to take us through this engagement. What can we do personally? What do we need organizations to do? What do we need governments to do to address this issue?
Rhiannon Hawkins: Thank you, Andre for introducing the final panel. So, we are going to be talking about what Andre’s just mentioned about personal and professional and public action, which needs to be taken within our community. So Laeila, what would you consider good action for mental health clinicians to undertake to help young people with climate anxiety when they come and see them?
Laeila Benoit: Yeah. So, there are more and more young people coming to see a psychiatrist/psychologist about eco anxiety. So, first I think listen to their concern and don’t pathologize it. Don’t start saying, “Oh, this kid is anyway anxious and he’s anxious about climate, but if it was not climate, it would be something else.” Sometimes we can have this tendency as mental healthcare provider to finds easy answer. So, no, the answer is not easy. The answer is a real concern about climate change.
Then what we can do is that there is a lot of power in positive narratives about what can be done about climate change. Climate anxiety is a way of talking about death anxiety, about responsibility, and freedom also, the things I do have an impact. So, it’s a good way to talk about this all and to empower the young people to know that they can change something, they can take action and that their worries are legitimate ones.
Rhiannon Hawkins: No, thank you for such invaluable advice. I hope clinicians who’ve not really done much work around this or have seen patients really benefit from Laeila’s advice because as young people going into healthcare settings, we really do depend upon clinicians knowing and how to treat and how to support us the best way you can. So, I’m going to move on Lise, and I’m going to ask if that’s okay, Lise, I’m just going to ask you a quick question on what can professionals do to support young people’s mental health and climate change surrounding climate and eco distress?
Lise VanSusteren: So, I’ll try not to repeat what others have already said and segue instead to the call to arms, the call to action. Mental health professionals, for some curious reason, have largely left the power of their expertise on the table when it comes to addressing climate. The interesting thing is that this is what we do uniquely. We get science, we get denial, we get how to bur under people’s defenses, we get how people don’t want talk about stuff for a whole variety of reasons, we know how to get people to trust us, we know how to make the point that you need to change your behavior today in order to make sure that people are safe either now, today, or down the road.
But we have been on the sidelines. This has to change. We have to find a way to get out of our offices. The typical academic institutions where we find ourselves and we have to get out into that open arena. Now, it’s not comfortable for all of us. I go back and forth on wanting to be in a public domain, but this is now our responsibility. We don’t know why we are here. There’s so much we don’t know about the world. But one thing that we do know is that we can be effective. We do know how to bring people together. When we talk in a public forum, people listen, they know that we have the credibility and the background. We need to address policy makers, we certainly need to address our colleagues, and we need to direct all of this into addressing the moral ground, which is that this is the future of children who will be at the tip of the spear and because of this, it is imperative for us to act.
So, one other thing, go to your professional organization, make sure that they’re devoting money to addressing this. If you work on a clinic or a hospital, make sure that cafeteria has low carbon food, and make sure they got a vegetable garden on their roof if there’s enough room left over when they’ve put their solar panels up, make sure that there isn’t grass around that building, that they have wild plants, and point out rival institutions that are doing this. There’s so much we can do.
Rhiannon Hawkins: No, no, thank you so much for that. Because often the logical things people don’t actually think about like actually things which aren’t related to clinical practice, for example, often get neglected. So, please, please, please when you think about it, don’t get overwhelmed. It is the simple things to start off with. It is very simple to start introducing climate action into your clinical practice. And if you’re a teacher introducing it into educational settings, it’s a very easy thing to do. So, I’m going to open out the floor there to everybody else who’s on the panel. What do people fundamentally think and feel about what can be done to address eco distress and the ecological crisis as a whole?
Lise VanSusteren: Well, I’m going to just break the ice then, because it’s been said already, if you want to solve climate anxiety, fix the cause. If kids in the rest of the world know we’re working on the problem, that anxiety goes down. We know that. That when we confront a problem and start unpacking it and fixing it, that our anxiety goes down. I don’t know who it was, who said it, but it’s been said multiple times. Fix the cause, it’ll take care of the symptoms.
Rhiannon Hawkins: Yeah, that’s great. That’s awesome. Thank you. Douglas.
Douglas: Yeah, I think my one thing would be in order to do that, we need to get organizations. We devolve many of the responsibilities upwards for these things. So it becomes the organizations, it’s banks, it’s politicians, it’s organizations, and these organizations make decisions in a very weird way. And some of them are just unable to respond to this actual crisis that’s happening now because of the way they frame their discussions. So, we need to make sure that these concerns are front and center of all of the decision making and the planning and the investment and all of this stuff that we don’t see.
We might live in a democracy, but our dose of democracy is whatever, 16 Xs in our box or something like that over our lifetime. So, that stuff needs to be transparent and needs to be informed by a lot of the very good work that’s going on in various places as to how we represent these and the way that organizations make decisions. And that means investment as well. Because I think if we’re able to perceive the problem in the right way, the action will follow.
Rhiannon Hawkins: No, fab. Thank you very much, Douglas, for your opinion. Is anyone else wanting to contribute in terms of young people or clinicians or anybody else?
Rana: Yeah, no. I would like to say, I agree with what you said Rhiannon about it’s the simple things and I think just starting off and especially talking about climate issues in education settings would be really helpful. I wish I was educated on this when I was younger, primary school, secondary school. What I notice is we always tend to talk about these things when there’s an event such as an extreme weather condition or an event happening around the world. And what happens is, that’s when we start talking about it. It should be something we talk about on a daily basis and how can we incorporate these things into our lifestyles?
Speaking on behalf of myself, when I hear these things, I tend to, I’m like, “Recycle a bit more,” and then suddenly that dies down and I’m back to my old self. But if we incorporate this into our lifestyle every day, I think we could. It’s the little things like you said, it would make a big change.
Rhiannon Hawkins: Fab, thank you. Thank you very much, Rana, for your contribution. Anybody else, just one final comment before we end up?
Andre Tomlin: I’d really like to thank Jennifer-
Rhiannon Hawkins: Yeah, Jennifer.
Andre Tomlin: … For doing a lot of this work already. Share what you’ve been doing, Jennifer.
Jennifer Uchemdu: Oh yeah. Thank you. Thank you, Andre. I just wanted to say that for the longest five, six years doing work with young people in Nigeria, because it wasn’t technology or something so big, it wasn’t recognized, the fact that we’re trying to drive community action. We were saying that young people need to be empowered to able to lead and even imagine the future that they wanted to live in and not until recently has this action of radical hope and wanting to really go back to the structures and the societal structures that make climate change even possible only recently has it been prioritized.
And that’s why it’s really important. That’s why conversations like this are important to say a lot of community action, individual actions, really important. And for us is really thinking about how do we live with climate change? Because it’s already here. We don’t see it anymore as trying to prevent some future. The future is here already. We’re already seeing the disasters. We’re already living with flooding and whatnot back home in Nigeria, and really going back to checking our emotional response and where our minds are with everything that’s happening is really important. So, work like this really needs to be invested in and supported as much as possible. Thank you.
Rhiannon Hawkins: No, thank you very much. Thank you, Jennifer. Your experience is actually invaluable to this panel and I think to many of the attendees who have come to the webinar today because people want not just experiences from a psychiatric perspective, but a social perspective as well and how to implement that within their own communities and backgrounds. So, I’m going to pass it on to Andre to finish up the webinar.
Andre Tomlin: Great stuff. Thank you everyone for joining us, we’ve had a really brilliant, rich discussion in the chat. So, thank you to everyone who’s contributed to that. We’ll save that and we’ll share that out with all the other webinar materials with you on the website.
Speaker 1: Find out more about becoming an ACAMH member, and to be part of the advancement of child and adolescent mental health, visit www.acamh.org.
About the event
A panel comprising, Professor Dr. Lise Van Susteren, Jennifer Uchendu, Dr. Laelia Benoit, and three young people who are part of The McPin Foundation Young People’s Network discussed the research on climate anxiety, and what the burden of mental health related to climate change with. This discussion was be co-chaired by Rhiannon Hawkins, Royal College of Psychiatrists Young Person Representative, Douglas Badenoch, and Andre Tomlin (@Mental_Elf)
- Experience. What are the affects of climate anxiety on a young person?
- Evidence. What studies have been done on climate anxiety? What is the quality of this evidence?
- Engagement. What should we do personally and professionally?
CAMH Special Issue – ‘Mental Health and the Global Ecological Crisis’ landing page of free papers, podcasts, and upcoming free events.
The Royal College of Physiatrists ‘Eco distress: for young people’
The Royal College of Physiatrists position on sustainability
About the Speakers
Dr. Lise Van Susteren
Dr. Lise Van Susteren is an American psychiatrist in private practice in Washington, DC with a special interest in the psychological effects of climate change. Dr. Van Susteren speaks frequently to civic, educational, religious, labor, and environmental groups about the impacts of climate change, particularly the health impacts, in the Washington, DC area, nationally, and abroad. In 2009, she organized the first conference to focus on the psychological impacts of climate change. She co-authored The Psychological Effects of Climate Changepublished by the National Wildlife Federation.
In 2011, Dr. Van Susteren collaborated with Our Children’s Trust in a lawsuit against the federal government for breach of its fiduciary duties to preserve and protect the atmosphere for children and future generations. Dr. Van Susteren co-founded Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, a multi-faith coalition dedicated to organizing people of religion and spirituality to speak out against climate change. She also co-authored the 2013 piece, Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature, published by PLOS ONE, an open access peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science.
Dr. Van Susteren serves on the advisory board of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Wildlife Federation and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Since 2009, she has served on the Climate Energy and Environmental Committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in Washington, DC. She also serves on the Policy Advisory Board of Gender Rights Maryland.(Bio and image from Climate for Health)
Jennifer Uchendu is an ecofeminist, sustainability communicator and the founder of SustyVibes – a youth-led organisation championing sustainable development research and project in Nigeria through pop-culture. Her recent research interests lie between the intersects of climate change and mental health with a focus on intersectionality and emotions in youth climate activists. (Bio and image from Confer)
Dr. Laelia Benoit (MD, Ph.D.) is a French and Brazilian Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and associate researcher at the Center for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health (CESP) of the French NIH (Inserm). Her current project assesses the impact of climate change on the mental health of children and adolescents in three different countries (the US, Brazil, and France). Laelia Benoit favors citizen research approaches, involving adolescents, their parents, professionals, and family support groups. Her teaching (Yale University, Universidade de São Paolo, University of Paris) focuses on qualitative methods for researchers, and on psychological and social science skills for caregivers and school professionals to help them support the health of children. (Bio and image from Yale School of Medicine)
Rhiannon is a young person representative for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and studies Geography at the University of Oxford. She has been involved in a variety of different eco distress Royal College projects, for example: planning conferences, doing press interviews and contributed to the College’s climate position statement. She is currently involved with the ACAMH journal and is writing an article for their COP26 issue being released in February. She has a strong interests in Climate Change, eco distress and intersectionality.
André Tomlin is an Information Scientist with 20 years experience working in evidence-based healthcare. He’s worked in the NHS, for Oxford University and since 2002 as Managing Director of Minervation Ltd, a consultancy company who do clever digital stuff for charities, universities and the public sector. Most recently André has been the driving force behind the Mental Elf and the National Elf Service. The Mental Elf is a blogging platform that presents expert summaries of the latest reliable research and disseminates this evidence across social media. They have published thousands of blogs over the last 10 years, written by experts and discussed by patients, practitioners and researchers. This innovative digital platform helps professionals keep up to date with simple, clear and engaging summaries of evidence-based research. André is a Trustee at the Centre for Mental Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London Division of Psychiatry. He lives in Bristol, surrounded by dogs, elflings and lots of woodland!
Follow on Twitter @Mental_Elf
I am an information scientist with an interest in making knowledge from systematic research more accessible to people who need it. This means you. I’ve been attempting this in the area of Evidence-Based Health Care since 1995. So far the results have been mixed. For some reason we expected busy clinicians to search databases and appraise papers instead of seeing patients. We also expected publishers to make the research freely available to the people who paid for it. Ha! Hence The National Elf service.