Wellbeing and Mental Health

Eco-anxiety is harming young people's mental health — but it doesn't have to

A boy looks at his phone in a dark room. Eco-anxiety is growing among children.

Social media is partially responsible for rising anxiety over climate change, known as eco-anxiety, among children. Image: REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare SEARCH "O'HARE HEALTH CORONAVIRUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

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  • Climate change is fuelling a mental health 'eco-anxiety' crisis among our children and young people, some of it fuelled by social media and much by a feeling of powerlessness.
  • 67% of Americans aged 18 to 23 are somewhat to very concerned about the impact of climate change on their mental health.
  • But this can be combated by taking meaningful action, such as campaigning or volunteering, that gives children a sense of agency and control.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the communities worldwide experienced sharp increases in stress, anxiety, depression and suicidality. Systemic shortcomings in access to mental health services emerged, with billions in funding allocated to improved solutions.

But those solutions need to be supported by an in-depth understanding of how certain factors impact mental health — not least, climate change.

The connection of hurricanes, wildfires and floods to physical health is clear: they cause injury, hospitalization and death and damage the infrastructure used to provide of food, water, sewage, technology and medical supplies.

What is less well-understood is the impact of extreme weather events on mental health — especially when it comes to children.

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Trauma, mental health and extreme weather events

Trauma and shock can occur after witnessing injuries or deaths of loved ones, or damage to personal property or the loss of livelihood, such as the destruction of small businesses. Studies of adult survivors indicate a prevalence of PTSD between 30-60% in the first year following a disaster event. Even if PTSD does not develop, survivors are at risk of anxiety or depression.

Historically, extreme weather events were seen as one-time natural disasters where survivors could recover and rebuild. With the acceleration of climate change, communities are experiencing recurring disaster events from which it is difficult to recover.

As extreme weather events increase in occurrence, the public becomes more aware of climate change. According to the American Psychological Association, 75% of Americans are concerned about climate change and 25% are alarmed — a figure that has doubled since 2017.

The worsening of climate change and growing awareness of it mean that it’s no longer just survivors who are experiencing mental health effects. Initially documented in 2007, a new phenomenon is emerging called eco-anxiety.

Eco-anxiety - a driver of the mental health pandemic

Eco-anxiety is worry about the future that can result in fear, anger, powerlessness, exhaustion, stress or sadness. While there has been debate in the medical community about the exact definition, there is consensus that uncertainty and uncontrollability fuel eco-anxiety.

This might be because young people have a more uncertain future, and thus view climate change as more of a threat than older generations. Other factors play a role too: identifying as female, not being able to take action and having a strong connection to the land can make eco-anxiety worse.

Social media, too, plays a role. People, especially children, are now learning about climate change through social media. Witnessing natural disasters online, while different from living through them, can catalyze the development of eco-anxiety. Adults can reassure children by engaging in behavior that actively combats climate change. Protective factors against eco-anxiety anxiety include participating in activism, trusting in technology and developing a sense of agency over climate change.


A risk to our children and economy

As billions in funding is directed towards mental health following the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that proposed solutions encompass burgeoning issues like eco-anxiety. Otherwise, we risk spending on solutions that don’t address the full spectrum of mental health concerns.

This is especially important in the field of youth mental health, where recipients of care have a heightened awareness of the intersectionality between these fields: 67% of Americans aged 18 to 23 are somewhat to very concerned about the impact of climate change on their mental health.

When developing mental health solutions that address eco-anxiety, including for the youth, solutions providers should consider various types of coping behaviors and their associated outcomes, including:

Problem-focused coping: making active strides to address climate change.

Emotion-focused coping: managing negative emotions related to climate change.

Meaning-focused coping: managing negative emotions related to climate change, while simultaneously promoting positive emotions like hope by combating climate change.

While emotion-focused coping has been the most common strategy used by adolescents and young adults to date, research has found that meaning-focused coping is the most effective in regards to eco-anxiety. When done correctly, meaning-focused coping, such as getting involved in the fight against climate change through volunteering or campaigning, facilitates positive emotions like hope without ignoring negative ones like anger or anxiety.

The end result is processing, rather than getting stuck in, anxiety and feeling motivated to engage in activism and other pro-environmental behavior.

Not only will this improve the mental health of those worrying about climate change, but it will also contribute to the grassroots movement to protect our planet.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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