Fears about climate change impacting young people’s mental health

In about half of people, mental illnesses arise before age 18 - add climate change fears and the outlook is grim

Suppose you wake up in the night and you notice flames coming from downstairs. You ring for the fire brigade and they say you’re probably imagining it.

Anyway, they add, by the time they could get there it would be too late anyway.

As you watch your house burn, your feelings might include anger, a sense of betrayal and grief.

Is that an extreme metaphor for the feelings of young people towards older generations and governments in regard to climate change?

It's the impression that comes across to me from research led by the University of Bath and published, prior to being peer reviewed, on the Lancet website. Information was collected last year from 10,000 people in 10 countries including the UK, France, Australia, India and Nigeria.

To me the findings suggest that anxiety and other negative emotions affect younger people to a greater extent than, perhaps, older people appreciate.

If you add in the number of older people who feel the same way then we have a crisis of fear and anxiety that goes unrecognised. The understandable preoccupation with Ukraine has pushed climate change into the background, but it remains a major source of concern and of future mental ill-health.

In the research, almost 60 per cent of respondents said they felt “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change. Over 45 per cent said they felt negatively affected in their daily lives.

Levels of fear were high with as many as 77 per cent saying the future was frightening. Almost half felt dismissed or ignored when they talked to other people about their fears. What this means to me is that climate change is already affecting the emotional wellbeing of significant numbers of people. Directly or indirectly that additional stress, in an already stressful world, will become an increasingly serious source of suffering. It will also make increasing demands on mental health services.

Not all of this will be obvious. Serious emotional pressures can trigger mental illness. The illness may be treated without a recognition that the source was climate change.

The vulnerability-stress theory which originated in the 1960s, states that stresses can bear down on the individual in ways that trigger conditions such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia. Tragically, these stresses can lead to suicide.

Lots of people go through their whole lives without ever having to know that they have a genetic vulnerability to a mental illness because they never encounter a stress that triggers it. Others are not so lucky and under stress they experience a life-changing psychiatric disorder.

If you take a newish stressor like fears about climate change, it seems to me that this can only lead to increases in mental illness or in degrees of suffering that fall short of psychiatric disorders. And this is all without even considering the direct effects of extreme climate events on mental health.

Research published in the journal Nature suggests an association between extreme weather events and suicide. When pregnant women are traumatised in weather events, the children can suffer mental or physical issues in later life.

In about half of people, mental illnesses arise before the age of 18. For that age group, add in growing worry about climate change and the outlook is grim.

What can be done? One, I think, is to listen to young people’s fears with respect and not to dismiss them. Another is to be seen to be pushing for action by governments on climate change and to be doing our own bit in our own lives to respect the environment. We could encourage young people in promoting action on climate change.

In particular we could recognise that we are being hurt already by climate change even though Ireland has not yet suffered catastrophic events such as floods or extreme heat. But the mental health threat is surely encroaching already like first waves of a tide. And as with the first waves of a tide, it is important not to ignore them and end up trapped.

– Padraig O’Morain (Instagram,Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness - a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email at pomorain@yahoo.com.