Eco-anxiety: 'There is hope… saving the planet starts with small steps'

At a time when an increasingly youthful new wave of eco-warriors join the fight against climate change, growing numbers of young eco-worriers are being driven to despair over the threat it poses to their future.

Amid all the headlines about floods, pollution, wildfires, melting icecaps, greenhouse gases and other dire consequences of global warming, some youngsters are becoming seriously troubled by the prospect of an imminent apocalypse. Psychologists internationally say it’s causing anxiety, depression, insomnia, panic attacks and even thoughts of suicide. They call the condition “eco-anxiety” and say that symptoms in younger children may also include separation anxiety, fatigue and aches and pains that don’t have a physical cause.

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While not yet officially recognised as a mental health disorder, the American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” while Psychology Today describes it as “a fairly recent psychological disorder affecting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis.”

It’s such a recent phenomenon that a senior clinical psychologist with Ireland’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service whom we contacted said he hadn’t yet seen a single case. However, according to National Childline Manager Margie Roe, “Trends that start in other countries tend to follow here a few years later and parents need to watch out for the signs and respond accordingly.”

“If a child thinks, ‘This world is out of control and there’s nothing I can do about it,’ they can feel powerless and afraid,” she says. “I would encourage parents to be age appropriate in discussing issues around climate change with their children. If things are too complex, all a child may hear is that something catastrophic is going on, not how we can prevent it.”

Those kids who do understand the issues may carry a heavy burden when they see that their own home life is far from environmentally friendly.

“If your child says, ‘Mum, Dad, we use way too much plastic, or ‘Please stop buying straws/weedkiller/aerosols,’ don’t dismiss their comments as a passing ‘right-on’ phase,” says Margie. “Listen. Take them seriously. Talk about how you can do things better – and then take action. When children are heard, supported, and their views valued, it’s very empowering for them.”

The looming threat of climate change spurred 16-year-old Skibbereen student Saoi O’Connor to become one of the leading eco-activists in Ireland today. Since January this year she and her friends ditched school weekly to protest outside City Hall Cork as part of the #FridaysForFuture movement. Students in other parts of the country joined in the civil disobedience campaign, while thousands marched in rallies, joining 1.4 million students worldwide calling for politicians to act decisively to tackle climate change.

She uses the term ‘existential stress’ to describe the anxiety that young people feel today, and her mother Isolde says it’s perfectly understandable that they might feel that way.

“Our very existence is under threat due to climate change and that’s a scary thought not only for young people, parents feel it too,” says Isolde. “The body’s natural response to threatening situations is fight, flight or freeze. Saoi and others are fighting, while some young people are fleeing or freezing. But whether your response is to go out on the streets protesting, lie in your bed at home crying, or pretend it’s not happening, it’s all a natural response to a very real and present danger. You need to acknowledge it exists, but above all, be hopeful.”

Activist Saoi describes the emotions felt in response to experienced or anticipated ecological loss as “climate grief.”

“In #FridaysForFuture, we’re reaching out to people who are scared and we are mobilising ourselves,” she says. “We had 5,000 students on the streets of Cork demanding action on climate change, but it’s not only through marching that our generation can express our grief. We also write poetry, make art, write letters to politicians, Tweet… We can all express ourselves in our own way and together we become a powerful force for change.”

William and Trish McElhinney who run the eco-friendly Wild Strands Caife in Malin Head Community Centre in Donegal, have raised their children to be eco-aware but not eco-anxious, even in the face of what William describes as “an emerging food crisis” in Ireland.

“We’ve lost our identity through mass consumption,” he says. “We need to educate children from an early age to respect the environment, take pride in their heritage and understand the relationship between eating nourishing, locally sourced organic food and their own mental and physical health.”

“Some people think that climate change is all to do with polar bears and typhoons on the other side of the world, but it’s already happening here,” says his daughter Niamh (18), who has just finished her Leaving Cert and plans to study Liberal Arts at Queens University. “It’s the norm for students to bring a chicken wrap to school and then go home and eat a plate of spaghetti Bolognese. Nobody needs that much meat.

“At home I was eating organic meat once a week, but when I started thinking about how it got to my plate – the value of the animal, the maize it fed on, farmers, transport, water… I thought, ‘That’s not living sustainably.’ That’s when I turned vegetarian. It was an ethical decision and I feel better for it.

“At school I set up a development education group, where students discussed global issues that affect us and our future. We can all do our bit. Even something like taking a reusable bottle with you instead of a plastic bottle makes a difference. If we see a piece of plastic on the street, we pick it up and pop it in a recycling bin. Actions speak louder than words.”

Her sister Réaltín (20) understands why young people could have felt somewhat overwhelmed at last year’s United Nations’ announcement that humanity has less than 12 years to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change, while an Australian policy paper released this year predicts the apocalypse will begin by 2050 if we don’t act now. Yet despite these stark messages, Réaltín urges anyone with eco-anxiety not to lose hope.

“For me, saving the planet starts with small steps,” she says. “I’m passionate about the Irish language – that’s what I’m studying at college – and I speak it when helping out in the Caife. I see language as an integral part of reclaiming our environment, food heritage, culture and physical and mental wellbeing. They’re not separate things, they’re all strands of a whole.

“Going back to our roots in terms of what and how we eat is one way to begin changing the environment. Both the food and the language celebrate our identity. We just need to reintroduce them back into our day-to-day lives and we will be all the richer for it.”

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