The Anxiety and Grief of the Ecological Crisis

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As the world focuses on the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), we caught up with Dr. Laelia Benoit, a French and Brazilian Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, invited as a Fulbright Research Scholar at the Yale School of Medicine.

Laelia’s research focuses on ecoanxiety among children and adolescents, and she is a co-author of the recent paper ‘Ecological awareness, anxiety, and actions among youth and their parents – a qualitative study of newspaper narratives’, published in the Special Issue of CAMH. doi.org/10.1111/camh.12514 You can access this paper free until 3 December 2021

Laelia sets the scene by defining ‘ecoanxiety’ and ‘ecological grief’ in children and adolescents, and provides insights into how these can manifest in children and young people.

Laelia then provides a summary of her recently co-authored CAMH paper, explaining the methodology used for the research and outlining the key findings and conclusions.

Furthermore, Laelia also talks us through the various ways in which children are depicted in the press according to their perspectives on climate change and how parents can best support their children who are experiencing ecological grief and anxiety.

Laelia also discusses the role of existential psychology as a useful framework to approach the climate crisis, and what the implications of her findings are for professionals working with young people, public health officials, and policymakers.

You can listen to this podcast directly on our website or on the following platforms; SoundCloudApple PodcastsSpotifyCastBox, DeezerGoogle Podcasts and Radio.com (not available in the EU).

If you are interested in hearing more about the mental health impact of the ecological crisis, Dr. Laelia Benoit will be speaking at the online event ‘Ecological Crisis and the Impact on Mental Health’ on 9 November 2021, 5pm. 

Dr. Laelia Benoit
Dr. Laelia Benoit

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)

Transcript

[00:00:27.990] – Jo Carlowe: Hello and 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 Dr. Laelia Benoit. Laelia is a French and Brazilian child and adolescent psychiatrist, invited as a Fulbright research scholar at Yale School of Medicine. Her research focuses on eco-anxiety among children and adolescents, and she is a co-author of the recent paper ‘Ecological Awareness, Anxiety and Actions among Youths and Their Parents, a qualitative study of newspaper narratives’, published in a special issue of CAMH.

[00:01:08.370] I’m catching up Laelia ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, taking place in Glasgow. In this podcast, we’ll focus on the CAMH paper and some of Laelia’s research interests. If you’re a fan of our In Conversation series, please subscribe on iTunes or your preferred streaming platform. Let us know how we did with a rating or review and do share with friends and colleagues. Laelia, welcome. Can you start with a brief introduction about yourself?

[00:01:34.530] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: Hello, Jo. I’m a child and adolescent psychiatrist. I studied and worked in Paris. Thanks to a Fulbright, I have worked as a researcher at the Yale Child Study Centre since January.

[00:01:46.650] – Jo Carlowe: Okay. And you’re interested in child and adolescent mental health and in particular, eco-anxiety and ecological grief in this age group. What is eco-anxiety and ecological grief and how does it manifest in children and young people?

[00:02:03.990] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: So eco-anxiety is defined as a chronic fear of environmental doom. It is not currently considered as a medical condition. Mental health professionals consider that anxiety is a healthy reaction to climate change. Ecological grief manifests itself by feelings of anger, guilt, terror, shame, anxiety, and despair. Ecological grief is considered a natural and legitimate response to ecological loss, so children are more likely to express enduring empathy for the natural world than adults. They are also more likely to make decisions readily when facing moral dilemmas. On the contrary, adults often demonstrate cognitive dissonance. They know that their behaviour contributes to climate change, for instance, driving or eating meat, but they nevertheless do it. Young people get triggered when they see adults acting irrationally. They more commonly become angry and demand moral clarity.

[00:03:08.130] – Jo Carlowe: That’s a really good explanation. Thank you. Let’s turn to your CAMH paper, ‘Ecological Awareness, Anxiety and Actions among Youths and Their parents, a qualitative study of newspaper narratives’. Can you give us a summary of the paper to help set the scene?

[00:03:25.230] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: I co-authored this paper with Isaiah Thomas, who is a medical student at Yale, and Andrés Martin, who is a professor of child and adolescence psychiatry at the Child Study Centre. In this article, we analysed the discourse in major American newspapers about children and their parents during the evolving climate crisis. We are specifically interested in how the lay press addressed the feelings and actions of young people but also the expectations of parents during climate crisis. Indeed, today few scientific papers focus on how young people manage their ecological grief and how they engage in climate action. Meanwhile, the lay press has increasingly shed light on youth climate activism and children’s eco-anxiety. It is important to be aware of the lay media’s explicit and implicit messaging about children’s reaction to ecological challenges. Indeed, these narratives may shape our understanding of contemporary childhood and parenting challenges.

[00:04:29.850] – Jo Carlowe: We’ll turn to the perceptions given in the lay press shortly. Before we do, can you say something about the methodology that you used for the research?

[00:04:38.850] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: First, we quantified the number of articles addressing climate change in the US newspapers. We found that dissertations doubled between 2014 and 2020. We next included articles published between 2018 and 2021 in six of the ten top American newspapers by circulation, and those articles focused on young people during the climate crisis. We found 131 articles, and we conducted a qualitative analysis based on discourse analysis.

[00:05:11.610] – Jo Carlowe: In your paper you say children are categorised in newspaper articles according to their perspectives on climate change. Can you talk us through the various ways children are depicted in the lay press?

[00:05:24.330] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: Articles commonly categorise children, adolescents and their respective perspectives around ecological action along four patterns of discourse. The first pattern of discourse depicts children and adolescents as fierce young activists, emboldened and demanding activists. So accounts of the global climate strike protests depict children and adolescents skipping school to join protests, together with friends or family members. These activists also self-identify as a generation prepared for collective action. Those papers also highlight the perseverance of youth climate activists during the Covid-19 pandemic.

[00:06:05.670] The second pattern of discourse depicts children and adolescents as neglected and disappointed by adults and therefore taking on the responsibilities of adults. We describe such an inversion of roles as an ‘adultification’ of children. Those adultified youth do not see themselves as missionaries. Instead of being young adolescence, they communicate with stubbornness and gravity. After all, they resent having to take on the burden that previous generations released themselves of.

[00:06:37.230] The third partner of discourse depicts children and adolescents as helpless victims of climate crisis in need of sympathy. These pieces push forward issues surrounding health of children and in particular, their mental health. And the final partner of discourse sets up the expectation that children and adolescents will be the ultimate saviours of humanity in the face of the climate crisis. This is an appeal to heroism, like helping our kids to take the lead in saving the planet. So these articles envision young saviours as environmental problem solvers who should be helped to take on their outside role.

[00:07:17.550] – Jo Carlowe: Is that a realistic portrayal? Can children be all four of those things? I just wondered what you think really.

[00:07:23.670] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: Oh, no, I don’t think that children can manage to do that on their own, even Greta Thunberg, come on. Not everyone is Greta Thunberg, but even Greta Thunberg is very helped and supported. She has a whole team around her. So how can you do on your own if you are just typical teenager wanting to help? No, I really think that children and adolescents need the help of adults.

[00:07:47.490] – Jo Carlowe: Laelia, let’s turn to the findings. Can you share some of the key findings and conclusions from your research?

[00:07:55.170] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: Yes, of course. So we saw that those children are depicted in four different ways. But we also found that newspapers depicted parents and adults in four ways. The first one is parents experiencing eco-anxiety through parenthood, so becoming a parent opened their eyes about the climate crisis. The other way of talking about adults is that they are taming children’s eco-anxiety. Another pattern is criticising youth-led activism, and the last pattern is about reimagining climate action as a source of transcendence and self-growth. So all these findings show us the climate crisis has triggered existential concerns in both children and their parents. And as you may know, when we are faced with existential threats, we tend to distract ourselves with the help of immature defences, such as repressing painful emotions, avoiding responsibility, and projecting our fears and hopes onto others.

[00:08:58.890] Similarly, the readers avoid news articles that trigger feelings of shame and guilt, and these defences account for decades of ineffective communication, and collective inaction around climate change. Thus the lay press face the challenge of addressing ecological concerns without triggering their adult readers urge to look away from it.

[00:09:22.230] So what we found is that to navigate this issue, newspapers’ narratives often engage in ‘childism’. Childism is a prejudice. It’s the view that children are immature beings, being produced, shaped and owned by adults. And within the discourse, if we describe elements of childism, are our parents and the criticism of young climate activists, but also in the adultification of young activists, and sometimes in the advice given to parents regarding the climate crisis. So the problem is that relying on childism distracts the adult readers from reflecting on their own existential concerns and life choices. Childism also conveys beliefs about children that may shape harmful or ineffective standards of parenting.

[00:10:15.150] – Jo Carlowe: According to your findings, and from what you’ve just said, US newspapers rarely address the ways adults respond to children’s eco- anxiety, but where they do, the proffered advice involves taming children’s ecological anxieties and maintaining control over the household. Is this type of advice unhelpful? And if so, how so?

[00:10:37.050] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: We can say this advice is unhelpful. Parents are expected to tame children’s anxiety by focusing on action. They are also expected to consider alternative futures, such as migration, while ensuring a peaceful routine for their offspring. If engaging in action is good, being in a hurry to tame children’s anxiety isn’t helpful. Parents who are distressed by their children’s anxiety will avoid discussing climate change with them. The children will then understand that climate anxiety is a topic that their parents don’t want to talk about. They will nevertheless remain anxious but also experience the burden alone instead of sharing it and feeling supported.

[00:11:22.590] – Jo Carlowe: So, Laelia, what is your message to parents? How can they best support their children who are experiencing ecological grief and anxiety?

[00:11:32.430] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: I think that in the context of climate crisis, parents can help their children process their death anxiety because actually climate change triggers death anxiety. And so how can we deal with that? One thing is to reveal finiteness. It means telling the child that yes, species, habitats and many human beings will die of climate change. Rather than occupying time by distracting themselves from this difficult truth, parents and children can accept it and be more grateful for the life they savour in the moment. I think the second way to help children process this anxiety is to support their authenticity, to show them every day that they are enough, just by being who they are and by feeling what they feel. This helps adults and children to marvel not at the way things are, but simply at their existence.

[00:12:27.390] – Jo Carlowe: Laelia, can you say something more than about the role of existential psychology as a useful framework to approach the climate crisis?

[00:12:36.510] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: Existential psychology is a useful framework to help adults confront difficult truth, process distressing feelings, and take responsibility as role models. The concern of freedom, for instance, enable us to comprehend our agency as well as our responsibility in climate change. Adults have to accept some lingering anxiety for how their active or passive stance may have impacted the planet’s health. However, through their actions, parents and adults can also empower youth by taking action and in doing so, modelling engaged and global citizenship that the children can emulate in order to feel less powerless, hopeless, and worried about the perilous times that may lie ahead.

[00:13:23.550] – Jo Carlowe: Thank you. What are the implications, Laelia, of your findings for professionals, including clinicians and educators working with young people, and public health officials too?

[00:13:35.370] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: Clinicians and educators are adults and they are part of the adults surrounding children. So they can help young people to address eco-anxiety, and they will be increasingly expect to address this ego-anxiety. So if the professionals can identify the existential threat that arises from climate change, they can help parents support their children while avoiding the trap of childism, and they can themselves take responsibility as role models.

[00:14:03.870] – Jo Carlowe: And how would you like your paper to inform policymakers? And what is your hope for COP26?

[00:14:12.090] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: Yes, so what we think is that this existential frame is not only and maybe not primarily at the individual level, and it can inform public health and educational messaging. So we think that our field has the opportunity to address, through print and social media, for example, the deepening fears and worries of the younger generation, and we can also inform them by using existential principles. My hope is that adults take their share of the responsibility and that not only young people, but a growing number of united citizens reclaim meaningful and purposeful action for climates. From the perspective of policymakers, taking impactful decisions, such as taxing carbon, requires a long-lasting sense of purpose and enduring commitment arises from deep experiences. Children and adolescents are showing us that it is possible to allow ourselves to feel this anxiety and they help us to engage in meaningful and purposeful action for climates.

[00:15:15.330] – Jo Carlowe: Thank you ever so much. Laelia, are you planning any follow up research that you can tell us about?

[00:15:20.730] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: Yes. We are interviewing children and adolescents in the US and France and Brazil to know more about their emotions and their climate action. This will be the follow up. We plan to finish this next year.

[00:15:33.570] – Jo Carlowe: And is there anything else in the pipeline for you that you’d like to mention?

[00:15:38.070] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: Yes. Based on this project, we will build, hopefully, clear guidelines and workable strategies for the public health sector. We want to provide parents and professionals with tools to support and empower children in the climate crisis.

[00:15:53.670] – Jo Carlowe: Great. Thank you. Finally, Laelia, what is your take home message for those listening to our conversation?

[00:16:00.570] – Dr. Laelia Benoit: The message would be that in the context of ecological crisis, parents and children can act together with creativity. They can experience life with intensity, and they can develop values that enable them to address climate change as a transformative challenge. They can engage in self-reflection and authenticity. They can build on filial identities, family values, and they can also grow with spirituality. So climate change is a transformative challenge, and it is very important to address it together, children and adults, parents and children.

[00:16:40.230] – Jo Carlowe: Wonderful Laelia. Thank you so much. For more details on Dr. Laelia Benoit, please visit the ACAMH website, www.acamh.org and Twitter @acamh. And don’t forget to follow us on iTunes or 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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