Facing up to climate anxiety

This generation of young people are facing the very survivability of the human race. Stephen Finlayson, Head of Innovation for mental health charity, Penumbra believes climate anxiety is normal, it’s a rational response to the Climate Emergency.

These global issues are real and distressing for many, diminishing the actual reality is not helpful to our young people but giving them a sense of genuine agency over the future is.

I grew from teens to early 20s in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Looking back now, it can seem almost like a golden age in terms of the national, and global factors that can affect our mental wellbeing. While there were of course many problems, there was also a real sense of optimism. The Cold War appeared to be over. South Africa had been liberated from apartheid. Many of the social divides such as racism and the battle for a more inclusive society seemed to be going in the right direction.

That is different today with the climate crisis, it is worth reflecting on the unprecedented nature of what young people are facing - both in terms of global events, and the psychological and emotional toll this creates.

Even going back to the fears over nuclear catastrophe of the cold war period, never has there been a generation of young people who have had to contend with messages that the very survivability of humans as a species could be at risk. Add into the mix the justified anger at the actions of previous generations that have led to this place, and it is no surprise that so many young people are experiencing distress, despair and a sense of powerlessness. 

How we conceptualise what is going on for young people is critical here. It is important that we view these reactions as normal, rational even – they are not signs of any inherent mental ill health. Arguably, anyone who is not experiencing anxiety at the realities of climate change is not paying attention. That being said, the impact will of course be greater for young people who are also experiencing challenges with their mental health for other reasons.

It is hard to write about these things without sounding bleak. In my organisation, Penumbra, we talk of hope as being fundamental to supporting people through difficult times with their mental health. It is important not to be trite about this. The challenges are immense, and superficial positive thinking is not going to cut the mustard. And yet, hope we must, and hope there is. 

The recent IPCC report made clear that while the challenges are immense, there is still time and opportunity to step back from the brink. Adults must offer hope to young people. We cannot simply pass the buck on to them. 

As Greta Thunberg powerfully said “…you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

Our job as adults, as parents, as youth workers, as mental health advocates must be to support our young people in three key ways:

To validate their experience.

We must not diminish the reality or provide false comfort. We need to look young people in the eye and acknowledge that this is real. 

Be allies.

Whether as individuals in our own relationships with young people, as people working with young people directly or as representatives in our organisations we must communicate powerfully that we are committed to being alongside them to fight for their future, not blindly leaving it to them as Greta Thunberg rightly rages against.

Help young people to feel in control.

In terms of young people’s mental wellbeing, this may be the most critical, and the most challenging factor. There are few things more important to wellbeing than a feeling of agency and control over your life. The Climate Emergency poses an unprecedented challenge to the ability to feel in control. The nature of the issues is so globally complex that feeling a sense of agency can be daunting. We need to support young people to find ways that they can meaningfully feel they have agency while tolerating the fact that the bigger picture is out of any one person’s control.

If we can do this, and support the huge energy among young people, then we do indeed have the potential to create a hopeful future for all of us.

W www.penumbra.org.uk/

T @penumbra_scot

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