‘Terrified for my future’: climate crisis takes heavy toll on young people’s mental health | Climate crisis

Jem, 24, has started losing sleep over the climate emergency. “Over the last two years,…

‘Terrified for my future’: climate crisis takes heavy toll on young people’s mental health | Climate crisis

Jem, 24, has started losing sleep over the climate emergency. “Over the last two years, I have felt growing anxiety at the state of the environment. It keeps me up at night,” Jem, who works in nature conservation in Somerset, says. “I worry about what future I should be planning for.”

Jem says it has contributed to them taking medication for their mental health. “I am on antidepressants but I don’t think this is a solution. Things like antidepressants can’t fix things when it’s an external problem. It’s the world we have created that is causing these issues.

“Our mental health is so intrinsically tied to everything around us that we constantly see on the news. Even if you try and tune it out, you’re not going to be able to. It’s so out of our control. I know the science and the stark realities of it. There’s no fix to the anxiety because you know [the climate] is going to get worse.”

Jem is one of scores of young people who shared their distress over the climate emergency with the Guardian. In a recent survey by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), almost three-quarters (73%) of 16- to 24-year-olds reported that the climate crisis was having a negative effect on their mental health, compared with 61% of all people in the UK. The figures were up from 61% and 55% respectively in 2020.

Jem is not alone in having sleepless nights. The other week, Amy Goodenough’s 14-year-old daughter woke her up at about midnight because she was awake worrying about the Willow project, the oil and gas drilling scheme in Alaska recently approved by Joe Biden.

Goodenough, 44, from Norwich, has watched her daughter become increasingly concerned about the state of the world in recent years. She says it started during the pandemic. “I think for that generation, it’s very scary – first the pandemic and then Putin invaded Ukraine and there was the whole nuclear threat. She was terrified about that,” she says.

Her daughter’s fears about the climate breakdown are affecting her view of her future. The 14-year-old’s school attendance has been lower since Covid, which Goodenough attributes to anxiety. “She is apathetic about studying because she doesn’t see the point when the world is going to end anyway,” says Goodenough, who works in domestic abuse services. “She’s worrying about things she can’t control. She’s really scared of the world she’s going to be released into.

“It’s hard, because her fears are founded in reality. It’s not like the monsters-under-the-bed fears of small children. These are real concerns that I can’t just magic away.”

Dr Gareth Morgan, a clinical psychologist and co-chair of the Association of Clinical Psychologists’ climate action network, acknowledges that terms such as “climate anxiety” or “eco-distress” can be helpful for some people, but cautions against pathologising distress over the climate crisis.

‘Terrified for my future’: climate crisis takes heavy toll on young people’s mental health | Climate crisis
Young climate protesters in Glasgow in October 2022. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

“These terms risk locating the problem within the person – that they’re too sensitive or having irrational thoughts. When we regard climate anxiety as an individual problem, it positions not being concerned about the climate crisis as the healthy norm. And this supports the continued societal silence on discussing the emotional impact of climate breakdown.”

Morgan says more young people are “understandably” reporting an impact on their mental health because the climate crisis is going to affect them, but it will also affect older people. He also notes that many parents and grandparents, too, are worried about the effects on their loved ones, and he says society collectively is experiencing many psychological responses to “climate trauma”.

While therapy and medication may be helpful for some, it does not address the root causes, Morgan says. “I think there is a space for therapy but it’s secondary to a bigger political response,” he says.

There is research suggesting that “one of the things people find helpful is participation, activism and connection with other people”, he says. “When you are connected to other people, that distress, that feeling there is something wrong with you for feeling this way, dissipates because you feel you are making a difference.”

Lily Henderson, 18, knows what this distress feels like – and how activism and a sense of community can help. “At 14 I started to learn more about climate change and what I found out made me terrified for my future,” the student from Inverness says. “At first I didn’t know what to do because I felt so alone. I felt so helpless.”

She felt that others did not understand the intensity of the problem. “I remember mentioning it to my friends, who said it’s OK, someone else will solve it. But nowhere near enough is being done when you look at the news.”

She joined a protest in Inverness in 2019, and from there her involvement in the climate movement snowballed, leading her to organise climate strikes in her home city and in Glasgow. “I put my fear into action,” she says.

Henderson still feels anxious about the future of the planet, but her activism has given her an outlet to push for change and a community of people who feel the same way.

For others who feel as she does, she recommends involvement. “Things will get better because you’ll learn to deal with it. It won’t disappear but if you can, reach out to groups that can help. Take your fear and turn it into action – that’s all we as young people can do.”