Climate distress linked to anxiety and action in youth

The psycho-social impacts of the climate crisis on young people in the UK.


Climate change affects human health and wellbeing through various pathways, including indirect psychological effects connected to people’s views of the climate crisis. Although the UK has been relatively spared the significant geophysical impacts of climate change, many people, particularly youth, are increasingly concerned about this issue.

Researchers from King’s College London, Queensland University in Australia, Imperial College London, and Climate Cares at the Institute of Global Health Innovation discovered that young people’s distress over climate change is linked to many difficult emotions in young people, even without direct climate-related experience. However, it can also motivate them to take positive climate actions.

Climate activism has been connected to good feelings like hope and more challenging ones like frustration and anger. Guilt, shame, sadness, and fear were all linked to reduced activity.

A 2020 UK study surveyed 539 young adults aged 16-24 about their experiences with climate distress.
The majority of respondents reported being just somewhat distressed. However, 10% of respondents said they were highly distressed during the global pandemic. They measured their concerns about the changing climate, the emotions they experienced in reaction to climate change, and their overall mental health and wellness and feeling of agency in responding to climate change. They also asked about their involvement in environmental and climate action and how climate change has impacted their lives positively or negatively.

Although few of these people had experienced climatic extremes, they reported being distressed by the degradation of the environment in places they cared about, dissatisfaction with the lack of climate change action, a lack of personal responsibility, worried about their future, and feelings of guilt and shame. On the other hand, extremely distressed respondents were more likely to report finding significance and fulfillment in climate action.

One of the Imperial study authors, Dr. Emma Lawrance, Mental Health Lead and Climate care, lead at the Institute of Global Health Innovation, said, “We know that many people, especially young people, are understandably concerned about the climate crisis and the lack of systemic action from leaders supposed to protect their future. In some people, the distress can galvanize them into action. In contrast, it becomes overwhelming in others and negatively impacts their mental health and wellbeing.”

He added, “Our work highlights the need to develop tools to help young people support their mental health and sustain action to mitigate the climate crisis. Actions that are helpful for the climate can also help our health. However, the burden must not be placed on young people to act alone but on the people in power who need to ensure that the use of fossil fuels is reduced as fast as possible. The young people told us that lacking leadership is an understandable source of hopelessness and distress. Anyone who cares about young people must do everything possible to move society away from fossil fuel dependence.”

The results show that mental health issues may make a person more vulnerable to climate distress or that mental health conditions may be worsened by climate distress. The highly distressed group was more concerned about how climate change would affect their future than any other issue, including finances, education, relationships, jobs, or politics.

Journal Reference:

  1. Tassia Oswald,Ans Vercammen, et al.Psycho-social factors associated with climate distress, hope and behavioral intentions in young UK residents. PLOS Global Public Health. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgph.0001938
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