Colette Sheridan: Eco-anxiety in young people is an empathetic response to crisis

To castigate young people for protesting is, quite frankly, insulting, says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: Eco-anxiety in young people is an empathetic response to crisis

Greta Thunberg at the COP-26 summit in Glasgow. She has laid bare the anxieties affecting young people over climate change.

‘LEAVE dealing with climate change to the grown-ups and go back to school’. That was among the messages in Twitter posts that I read prior to youth marches taking place all over the world, to highlight inaction and give vent to eco-anxiety while COP-26 continues.

That would be inaction on the part of our so-called leaders as the planet burns.

We have seen wildfires tearing through trees, hurricanes decimating houses and flash floods upturning cars. It’s scary. It seems out of control. 

And to castigate young people for protesting is, quite frankly, insulting. After all, it’s their futures that are at stake - and that of their children.

They clearly have no faith in the people running the world. That’s because the bosses are getting on in age and perhaps are operating from a blinkered perspective.

By the time they get to the end of the decade, some of them will be enjoying leisure time made possible by their superannuated pensions. In the meantime, today’s teenagers will be trying to negotiate a dangerous world in their twenties.

As the young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, wrote in the Guardian recently: “We refuse to acknowledge that we now have to choose between saving the living planet or saving our unsustainable way of life. We want both. We demand both.

“But the undeniable truth is that we have left it too late for that. And no matter how uncomfortable that reality may seem, this is exactly what our leaders have chosen for us with their decades of inaction. Their decades of blah, blah, blah.”

She’s right. And I put my hands up. I want to get on a plane and go to a sunny clime.

Despite promising myself not to keep buying unsustainable fashion, I still occasionally go shopping. I eat meat. I don’t always recycle plastic bottles. In other words, I am guilty of crimes against the planet.

On the plus side, I don’t have a car so I walk a lot, take public transport and occasionally use taxis. But really, I guess I’m one of those people that Ms Thunberg is giving out about. One of the having one’s cake and eating it brigade.

Yes, we can be full of hot air, blathering on about adopting a plant-based diet, but as soon as a tastier option presents itself, we succumb.

We don’t seem to be conscious of just how urgent the climate crisis is. It’s here, now. As Ms Thunberg wrote: “The denial of the climate and ecological crisis runs so deep that hardly anyone takes real notice anymore. Since no-one treats the crisis like a crisis, the existential warnings keep on drowning in a steady tide of greenwash and everyday media news flow.”

It’s no wonder that eco-anxiety (the chronic fear of environmental doom) is growing among children. More than 45% of young people in a survey of ten countries said their feelings about climate change “negatively affected their daily life and functioning”.

Two experts from Imperial College London, Mala Rao and Richard Powell, wrote in the British Medical Journal that the mental health impacts of the climate crisis have profound implications.

They say: “Neglecting the effects of increasing eco-anxiety risks exacerbating health and social inequalities between those more or less vulnerable oo these psychological impacts. The socio-economic effects - as yet hidden and unquantified - will add considerably to the national costs of addressing the climate crisis.”

In late 2020, the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists found that 57% of child and adolescent psychiatrists were seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment.

While eco-anxiety is not a diagnosis or mental illness, common signs to watch out for include low mood, helplessness, anger, losing sleep, panic and guilt. That’s a hell of a burden for young people.

I asked an 18-year-old girl if she and her friends are feeling depressed about the state of the world. She said when Greta Thunberg came onto the scene, suddenly, climate change became an issue that she and her contemporaries started talking about.

The 18-year-old is worried, but says she wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘eco-anxiety’. She combines studying with an active social life. I suppose she and her friends have enough on their plates, given the spiralling cost of rent and job insecurity.

There’s also the issue of drinks being spiked (and females being injected) with noxious substances that can have horrific effects.

On an average night out, young women have to be hyper-conscious of their safety. That’s their world in microcosm. The bigger picture is truly frightening.

As psychotherapist Caroline Hickman says, eco-anxiety is a “healthy response to the situation we are facing”. It shows empathy. But who would be a young one in these trying times?

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