Climate change-related worry, engagement, and mental health

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In this podcast, we are joined by Dr. Emma Sciberras, Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and Dr. Julian Fernando, a lecturer in the same department.

The focus of this podcast is on their co-authored paper, ‘Climate change-related worry among Australian adolescents: an eight-year longitudinal study’ (doi: 10.1111/camh.12521) , published in the CAMH 2022 Special Issue on ‘Child and youth mental health & the global ecological crisis’.

Emma and Julian begin by providing an overview of their paper, detailing the methodology used, and sharing some of the key findings.

Whilst the paper determined that both the high persistent and increasing worry group reported greater engagement with news and politics, only those in the persistent worry group had higher depression symptoms. Emma and Julian provide insight into how they differentiated between high persistent and increasing worry, and discuss whether those with increasing worry are on a trajectory to become persistently worried.

Emma and Julian also discuss how the relationship between engaging with the news and politics and levels of worry and depression feed into one another and explore whether greater societal engagement is a healthy way of managing eco anxiety.

Following their finding that worrying about climate change may be associated with poorer mental health, but also greater political engagement, Emma and Julian share their advice for young people and their parents, comment on the implications of their findings for professionals working with young people and their families, plus reflect on what message policy makers should take from their findings.

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For more information on the topic of climate change and its impact on child and adolescent mental health, check out our collection of FREE resources, from podcasts, to recorded lectures and Open Access papers from the CAMH 2022 Special Issue.

Dr. Emma Sciberras
Dr. Emma Sciberras

Emma Sciberras is an Honorary Research Fellow Manager and Team Leader in the Health Services research group at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI). She has worked at MCRI for over 15 years and leads a body of research focused on developing new behavioural interventions for children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Emma Sciberras is also an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at Deakin University. She leads the ADHD research lab and Intervention Streams of the Deakin Child Study Centre and Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development, Deakin University. She is also an honorary research fellow in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne. (Bio from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute)

Dr. Julian Fernando
Dr. Julian Fernando

Dr. Julian Fernando is Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Deakin University. His area of expertise is social psychology and he has research interests in utopian thinking and social change, and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour.


[00:30] Jo Carlowe: Hello. Welcome to the In Conversation podcast series for the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, or ACAMH for short. I’m Jo Carlowe, a freelance journalist with a specialism in Psychology. Today I’m interviewing Emma Sciberras, Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and Dr. Julian Fernando, a lecturer in the same department. We’ll be discussing their upcoming paper in the CAMH special issue on child and youth mental health and the global ecological crisis.

The CAMH is one of the three journals produced by the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health. ACAMH also produces the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and JCPP Advances.

If you’re a fan of our In Conversation series, please subscribe on your preferred streaming platform. Let us know how we did with the rating or review, and do share with friends and colleagues.

Emma and Julian, thanks for joining me. Welcome. Can you start with a brief introduction about who you are and what you do?

[01:32] Associate Professor Emma Sciberras: Hi, thank you so much for having us. My name is Emma Sciberras. I’m an associate professor in the School of Psychology at Deakin University, and I’m also a clinical psychologist.

[01:42] Dr. Julian Fernando: And I’m Dr. Julian Fernando. I’m also at Deakin University. I’m a lecturer there in Social Psychology.

[01:49] Jo Carlowe: Fantastic, thank you. Your research paper in the CAMH Special Issue has the title: “Climate change-related worry among Australian adolescents: an eight-year longitudinal study.” Can you give us an overview of the paper?

[02:05] Associate Professor Emma Sciberras: Yeah, thank you. This is a paper we’re really excited about. And I think we’re particularly excited because a lot of the research looking at this topic looks at young people’s views at a single time point. So this new research aims to extend the existing knowledge in the area by providing insights into young people’s concern about climate change assessed at multiple time points across early adolescence to early adulthood. And to do this we were able to use data from an existing data set called the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. And this is a nationally representative study that follows two cohorts of Australian children over time, but we use data from one of the cohorts, which is the kindergarten cohort, which has now followed young people over 9 waves, which started when they were four to five years of age. And for our particular study, we were able to use four time points of data where participants were asked about their level of worry about the environment and climate change. And so they were able to provide these ratings at age 10 to 11 years, and then 12 to 13 years, 16 to 17 years, and 18 to 19 years. So it’s a really rich data set. And at that adult– young adult time point we were able to look at young people’s mental health. And we also looked at societal engagement too, which in our study consisted of involvement in politics, as well as how often they followed news about politics in Australia, and also about international affairs. So to the best of our knowledge, this is the first study that’s been able to track climate related worry in young people over such a long period of time. And it was also quite a big study, so it included 2,244 young people.

[03:41] Jo Carlowe: Is there anything more about the methodology that you want to say?

[03:45] Dr. Julian Fernando: Well I think the notable thing about the methodology is the way in which we analysed the data. And that was, we were really interested in, not just the overall levels of worry about climate change in the sample, but the variability in that. And whether they were different trajectories over time. And so the way that we looked at that was to use a technique called Latent profile analysis. For those who were unfamiliar, basically what that does is groups people in the sample by the similarity of their responses. And so we were able to pull out different groups of young people who had different trajectories of climate-related worry over time.

[04:22] Jo Carlowe: I want to ask you more about how you differentiate between those groups. But before we get to that, can you share some of the key findings?

[04:29] Associate Professor Emma Sciberras: So the key finding from the paper was that we identified six subgroups of young people, which reflected different patterns of climate worry over time. So half of the young people had increasing, or moderate levels of worry. While there were 13% that had high persistent worry, and 13% that had slightly decreasing worry over time. There was a much smaller proportion of young people that were characterized by less, or lower levels of worry about the environment. So this included 17% of the sample that had persistent low worry. And then 8% that had, kind of, steep decreasing patterns of climate worry over that period of time examined. We then looked at how the different groups that we identified varied compared to the moderate, or average level of worry group. And we found that those adolescents with high persistent climate worry had higher depression symptoms at age 18 to 19 years. But those who increased in their climate worry over time didn’t have increased general mental health difficulties. We also found that those with high persistent and increasing levels of climate worry had greater engagement with politics and news at aged 18 to 19 years, but those children, or young people with low persistent worry, they had lower levels of political involvement and engagement with news compared to the moderate group. And also, those that started off having worries that steeply decreased over time, at that young adult time point they also had lower engagement with news compared to the moderate group, but political involvement didn’t differ.

[05:57] Jo Carlowe: Very interesting. I want to unpick it a bit further. So, as you said, Emma, there was a high persistent and increasing worry group, and both reported greater engagement with news and politics. But only those in the persistent worry group had higher depression symptoms. How do you differentiate between high persistent and increasing worry? And might those with increasing worry be on a trajectory to become persistently worried?

[06:24] Dr. Julian Fernando: So in terms of differentiating those two groups, those were two groups that were statistically derived from the analysis. And then we have then attempted to interpret what those groups might be like. The kind of interpretation that we’re working with is that the high persistent group may be a group of young people who are generally more anxious about a range of things, and climate change might just be one of those things. Whereas, the increasing worry group seems to be, and again, this is our interpretation, more climate change specific that as they have got older and the salience and severity of climate change has increased, their worry has increased as well. In terms of whether they are more likely to be like the high persistent worry in the future, I’m not sure.

I think one of the framings that we put around this in the paper was these ideas of constructive and unconstructive worry. That at this point the increasing group seems to be displaying what we would call constructive worry. That their worry is increasing in accordance with the severity of the problem, and at this point is not causing any other kinds of mental health difficulties, or it’s not related to. It is possible, I suppose, if the problem is not addressed where it continues to increase, that that worry could then become more unconstructive, and become more generalized if they can’t see any progress toward the resolution. But our data can’t really tell us anything about that at this stage.

[07:52] Jo Carlowe: So I’m really curious about this relationship between engaging with the news and politics and levels of worry and depression symptoms. How does it all feed into one another? So does more engagement exacerbate worries, which in turn can put a young person at risk of depression symptoms? Or is greater societal engagement a healthy way of managing eco anxiety?

[08:17] Dr. Julian Fernando: That’s a great question. It’s one that we have as well. I don’t think our data can really tell us that much about that question, in terms of putting them together. We’ve just observed what has happened, sort of separately. But I think our data gives us a hint that maybe greater engagement is a way that some people are using of coping. In the sense that, with that increasing worry group for example, they were experiencing increased levels of worry, but were not seeming to suffer from any other kinds of mental health difficulties, which is perhaps a reflection of their ability to engage with, to a greater extent, the issue, but we can’t really make a clear connection between those things with the data we have. And research in this area is still emerging, but there is some evidence from some other work– not from ours.

For example, the commentary that came along with our paper discusses some ways in which coping might be facilitated that on the one hand greater engagement might, as you say, lead to some greater experience of negative emotion as people are exposing themselves more to the issue. And that it may be a matter of finding a fine balance between engaging with the issue, but also finding reasons for hope and being able to see signs of progress. And that seems to be one of the emerging findings about how people are coping at this point. I also suspect that there will be some individual differences there as well. That for some people greater engagement is going to be better for them in terms of their coping, but for others it may not.

[09:59] Jo Carlowe: So if I’ve understood it right, a lot of young people who engage politically in this issue aren’t the same as some young people that might have more generalized anxiety, and therefore a stronger link with depression.

[10:12] Dr. Julian Fernando: Yes. I mean, I think one of the things that we were trying to bring out of the data is that there were probably– yeah, as you say, different groups of people that are engaging with this issue in very different ways. But some of them perhaps are becoming more activist. Some may be experiencing it more in terms of anxiety. And there are a number of other ways in which people might react. Maybe they– I know some of the other work in these areas that looked at young people who might sort of deny some of the severity of climate change as a way of coping, and there are a number of other ways. So that’s kind of one of the things that we really wanted to draw out was that variability.

[10:46] Jo Carlowe: It’s really interesting. Given the finding that worrying about climate change may be associated with poorer mental health, but also greater political engagement, what advice do you have for young people and their parents?

[11:02] Associate Professor Emma Sciberras: So it’s a great question. First, I’d like to highlight that point again that it was only those with the high persistent worries that had poorer mental health at age 18 to 19 years. And, as Julian mentioned, it is possible that this high persistent climate worry group reflects a group of young people that may worry more generally. And your questions about further research are really great. And I was thinking as you were talking that really our examination of this topic within this data set is the first probably of many different things that we can do with the data. And Julian will talk a little bit more about that later. But thinking we do have potentially the capacity to look at some of these relationships that you refer to bidirectionally. And which I think would be really interesting to look at how they relate to one another over time.

But in general, I guess other areas of worry or difficulty, open communication between young people and their parents is really important. And parents play an important role in talking with their children about all kinds of issues and listening to their concerns. And given that these worries are rational and grounded in reality, parents can actually do quite a lot by acknowledging and validating the feelings of young people. And if they are interested, supporting safe activism activities, if that’s, of course, of interest to the young person.

And following on from what Julian was saying about coping, I think parents also play a vital role in understanding how well their child, or young person, is coping with these kinds of difficulties. And we didn’t include a measure of coping in our study, but by having these open conversations parents can start to get a sense of, is there avoidance of climate related issues. So for example, we can’t rule out in our data set whether those that have low persistent and declining climate worries whether they actually do have some worries, but they were de-emphasizing the seriousness as a way of coping.

So we can’t rule that out based on this methodology. But also, parents can understand whether or not more constructive coping styles are being used like, problem solving approaches, and meaning focused approaches that Julian’s covered. And so I guess by having these conversations and beginning to understand where the young person is coming from, I think that’s a really important first step to helping to support the young person to develop adaptive coping responses if they are really worried about climate related issues.

[13:24] Jo Carlowe: What about the implications of your finding for professionals working with young people and their families?

[13:30] Associate Professor Emma Sciberras: Given that most adolescents in our study did have some level of worry about climate it’s likely that this may be something that comes up in health professionals work with young people. It might not appear as the primary issue for the presentation, but it could be amongst a number of different worries that young people are talking about. As per the suggestions for parents, I think professionals can do a lot by validating young people’s worries. And really being careful about not viewing them as being irrational or pathological. But I think health professionals have a really important role if young people are struggling to help to develop adaptive coping styles and strategies to managing worry. And I think this is a really important area. And there’s really little research from a clinical perspective that looks at how clinicians, in their practice, can help young people with climate-related worries.

I’ve heard lots of anecdotal examples of people starting to see these issues in their clinical practice, but we really don’t have the research evidence yet behind some of those approaches. And it would be great to see some of that really lovely research looking at coping strategies actually applied to test different ways of supporting young people and how effective that is to helping young people with their worry and engaging in constructive ways of coping with the issue.

[14:43] Jo Carlowe: Do you think, CAMH professionals feel confident in knowing how to deal with if this comes up in their practice?

[14:49] Associate Professor Emma Sciberras: I think that there’s just been such little training in this area. And I think there will probably be a variation in levels of comfort, like we’ve found a variation in levels of climate related worry. Speaking from my own clinical training and practice, when I did my training we got trained in anxiety and different approaches to helping people with anxiety, but the specific focus on climate related worries wasn’t something that was covered. And so I think that there’s growing opportunities now for professional development in this area. And a lot of health professional groups now have special interest groups for people that are working clinically and have a particular interest in this area. So I think that for anyone that’s listening that is interested in learning more, there are many more opportunities now. And even through your organizations and some of the recent webinars that are being completed covers some really practical tools and strategies for health professionals. So it’s really great to see that it’s growing, but I think it’d be really interesting to know for some of the younger generations of clinicians going through how much training they get in this area. And how to discuss these issues with young people and adults too.

[15:59] Jo Carlowe: What about policy makers? What message should they take from your findings?

[16:04] Dr. Julian Fernando: Well, I think very broadly the message would be to do something about it. To do something towards climate change mitigation. I think if you’re concerned that young people are worried about climate change then seeing progress towards climate change mitigation, I think, will go a long way to allaying some of those concerns. In a more specific sense, related to our data, I think something I would like policymakers to do is that the relationship between climate worry and broader mental health is complex. That it’s not a simple relationship between people are worried about climate change and they are therefore experiencing broader mental health problems. Our data doesn’t really show that at all. It may be for some people that that is the case, but other young people maybe coping in other ways, or engaging in activism, and so on. I know in Australia– I don’t know if this has occurred in other countries– but we’ve heard a number of politicians and people like that saying, we can’t talk about climate change. We can’t talk about the urgency of it, or add as an emergency, because we’re going to worry children. We’re going to make them fearful, and they’re going to experience mental health problems. And I think that message that may not necessarily happen and there are young people out there who are engaging in other ways. They are not just experiencing this as a sort of anxiety-creating situation, is important. And I think will help policymakers to understand young people’s engagement with climate change.

[17:31] Jo Carlowe: Well, let’s go on to follow up research. Are you planning any, and what can you share with us?

[17:36] Dr. Julian Fernando: At this point our plans a relatively vague. But I think we sort of foreshadowed a number of those things as we’ve been answering some of the questions today. Although we have some information about the relationship between engagement in politics and things like that, and also brought up mental health issues, looking at the relationship between those things will be an important next step. Understanding how, perhaps, engagement might be a way of coping and whether or not that is effective. The data set that we have used for this analysis has continued to be collected and there is more data coming out. So we’d really like to have a look at that in the future. Obviously, over the past couple of years, which will be the most recent wave of data, in Australia we’ve experienced some fairly significant events related to climate change. There has been the bushfires a couple of years ago. We’ve recently had some really awful floods as well. And so we are now starting to see the effects of climate change and the effects of that on the worries of young people will be very interesting to look at in the future.

We’re also exploring the idea of trying to find other similar data like this, potentially from other countries. There are some large scale publicly available data out there looking at young people, but also older adults as well to see if some of these trends are similar across ages, or whether this is something specific to young people.

[19:00] Jo Carlowe: Is there anything else in the pipeline that you’d like to mention?

[19:04] Associate Professor Emma Sciberras: In terms of future research, I just wanted to also add that I think our study started tracking worry about climate from age 10 to 11 years. And I think that there’s an opportunity to look at worries in younger children in primary school years. And I do think there’s a real role for qualitative research in this area. And there have been some qualitative studies in this area, but I think to kind of delve into this a little bit deeper and get at some of the questions that you’ve asked. I think hearing from young people, hearing about their strategies and their experiences of coping and mental health from their own perspective, I think would be a really great next step to kind of really understand the complexity from the young person’s perspective about having worry for the climate and their general experience of other mental health symptoms. I feel like this collaboration, it’s kind of come out off– I’m a clinical psychologist and Julian is a social psychologist, and I think we bring different perspectives. And I think working on this together and actually seeing those different perspectives has been a really great experience. And so I think there’s a lot that can be learned from that thing of clinical and more the social sciences together to kind of think about some of these big problems in society.

[20:16] Jo Carlowe: Fantastic. Brilliant, thank you. Finally, what is your takeaway message for those listening to our conversation?

[20:23] Associate Professor Emma Sciberras: So, I think the key take home is that young people vary in their worry about climate change over time. And the reporting of average worries, and just reporting one figure that reports on the average level of worry for young people, really won’t get at this variation and the unique profiles that young people experience in relation to worry. And in our study, we found six different profiles. So there’s many different ways in which this plays out. And so thinking about going beyond just the mean is one key message.

The other key message, which we have said before, is that there is this group of young people that have high persistent worry. They tend to engage more with society, and they have higher mental health difficulties, which may be which is something that we need to explore more. But somewhat reassuringly, those that do increase in their awareness and worry about climate change over time don’t have high levels of mental health symptoms to those with average levels of climate worry. But positively, that group that increases in worry over time seems to be engaging more in societal matters, which is positive. So I think they’re the key take-home messages, but most importantly around that variation and looking at how young people vary rather than just assuming all young people are the same.

[21:45] Jo Carlowe: Julian, anything to add?

[21:47] Dr. Julian Fernando: No, I think that’s about it. Just thank you very much for having us on the podcast.

Associate Professor Emma Sciberras: Thank you so much.

[21:52] Jo Carlowe: No, thanks for being here. It was really fascinating. For more details on Associate Professor Emma Sciberras and Dr. Julian Fernando, please visit the ACAMH website, and Twitter @acamh. ACAMH is spelt, A-C-A-M-H. And don’t forget to follow us on your preferred streaming platform. Let us know if you enjoyed the podcast with a rating or review. And do share with friends and colleagues.

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