Helping young people respond to the climate crisis  

Dr Catriona Mellor, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, writes for Children’s Mental Health Week 

Helping young people respond to the climate crisis  

After seeing images of climate change in action – whether that be floods in India or terrible, devastating fires in Australia – stress and anxiety are a natural response. 

It’s important that any young person upset by those images and news about the climate crisis remembers they are not alone in this – a lot of children and young people in the UK worry about our planet. This is normal and it shows that you care about others and the world around you.  

But if you feel worried all the time, it can affect your mental health. That’s why it’s important to understand how you feel, how to look after yourself and how others can help you. 

Don’t take on too much 

The climate crisis is on a different scale to the things that often stress us out in everyday life – like an exam or whether we should get a holiday job. Talking to someone about those sorts of things usually makes us feel better and the stress disappears after the exam or once we’ve made a decision. That doesn’t apply to climate change because we don’t feel so much in control of the things we’re worried about. 

You should take a step back and talk to someone if anxiety about climate change – eco distress – is getting on top of you.  

You may feel:  

  • Breathless, sweaty, sick 
  • Headachy, tense or fidgety
  • Anxious, fearful, panicky 
  • Upset, tearful, irritable, negative 
  • Angry, frustrated, furious 
  • Guilty, hopeless, drained 
  • On edge, numb, withdrawn. 

You may regularly:  

  • Think about the likelihood of a major disaster happening soon 
  • Think about animals and people dying 
  • Feel that grown-ups should be doing more 
  • Question whether you’ll have children 
  • Wonder about the point of going to school or developing a career 
  • Think you have a huge responsibility to make changes and convince other people to do the same. 

Such worries can affect your sleep pattern, your motivation, your energy levels and your ability to concentrate at school and when doing homework or reading.  

A healthy way to do your bit 

Always remember this is a project for our entire human species! The people with the most power hold the most responsibility. However, we all have a small part to play. 

  1. Keep up to date with information about the environment by talking to an adult or looking up a reliable website or charity. Remember that there’s a lot of duff stuff online though. And switch off regularly to do things you enjoy – no-one expects you to be an expert.
  2. Understand the feelings you have as a result of what you hear and see – remember that they make sense and are a sign you care about people and the environment.
  3. Talk about how you feel to someone who understands those feelings. You might want to explore your feelings by writing, creating art or playing music. We’re all different and we have many different ways of responding to difficult things in a healthy way. We must look after ourselves before looking after others.
  4. That means eating healthy food, getting enough sleep and exercising – including in the natural settings we all want to protect. There’s growing evidence that time spent in nature benefits our mental health. You can play or read outside, take a walk or even plant some seeds. And if you’re spending time in nature with your family and friends, well that’s even better.
  5. Look out for young people or groups locally or online that feel the same way you do. Talking to people can be reassuring and can improve your self-esteem and your confidence.  
  6. Many of those people or groups will be working on solutions that will make the world happier, healthier and safer. You can join them in taking action or just doing something differently. No matter how small it feels, it all makes a difference and helps tackle that sense of hopelessness.

But most importantly, look after yourself. Talk to your parents, a trusted teacher or your school nurse. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, they may advise you speak with your GP who could refer you to one of the services for children and young people that Oxford Health provides. 

by Dr Catriona Mellor, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, for Children’s Mental Health Week

Parents and guardians are being urged to support young people who may be experiencing anxiety due to their concern about climate change, research has revealed.

Speaking during Children’s Mental Health Week, Dr Catriona Mellor, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, says it is important that adults show worried children and young people that they understand the seriousness of the situation. Find out more.

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Published: 7 February 2022