Climate Action

Climate anxiety is on the rise — here's what we do about it

Group of local people all coming together to clean up their local beach. While climate anxiety is undoubtedly on the rise, we are also in the process of identifying how to address it it — and the answer, it seems, is community.

While climate anxiety is undoubtedly on the rise, we are also in the process of identifying how to address it it — and the answer, it seems, is community. Image: Getty Images

Britt Wray
Director, CIRCLE at Stanford Psychiatry, Stanford University School of Medicine
Kyle McKinley
Program Manager, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine
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  • Climate anxiety relates to the fear and uncertainty surrounding the future of our planet.
  • It is widespread and growing — and increasingly compounding with the wider crisis in mental health among young people worldwide.
  • The good news is that we have solutions available to us to ease climate anxiety and build resilient communities.

The fear of our once relatively stable climate breaking down is threatening people’s emotional and mental well-being all around the world.

In the largest survey of climate anxiety, conducted in 2022, climate anxiety was associated with negative mental well-being in 31 out of 32 countries. In a 2021 survey of 10,000 sixteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds spanning ten nations, three-quarters of respondents affirmed that “the future is frightening,” and a majority agreed that “humanity is doomed”.

Researchers and clinicians argue that climate distress (a loosely defined mixture of fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, dread or powerlessness, typically referred to in the literature as climate anxiety) is not pathological. Rather, it is a normal and appropriate thing to feel to some degree, given the escalation of climate events like hurricanes, droughts and floods, and clear evidence that our planetary boundaries are being overshot.

However, studies have also shown that while nonpathological, it can become disabling. Climate anxiety can precipitate significant mental health challenges, such as depression, generalized anxiety, sleep problems and even suicidal thinking. These outcomes require clinical support.

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Climate anxiety: A compounding crisis

The growing trend of climate distress will add a significant burden to already overloaded and strained mental health systems in many countries, compounding an already-ongoing child and adolescent mental health emergency in much of the world.

As the climate crisis deepens, it is reasonable to expect the associated global mental health crisis may be compounded severely. This would further undermine humanity’s collective ability to develop climate resilience, innovation and adaptation — precisely the resources we need to survive and thrive in the face of the disasters which are already baked into the global ecological crisis. We cannot let this happen.

Fortunately, an effective way of adding to climate resilience is to change existing mental health systems so they become more expansive community co-piloted systems that rely on lay leaders and peer support workers. Such so-called “frugal innovations” were originally inspired by lower-and-middle-income countries’ healthcare needs and offer hope for addressing mental healthcare treatment gaps around the world.

They can be strengthened through government and health system investments to prepare for climate impacts. These include “task-sharing”, where lay-leaders are trained by specialists to go out into their community and deliver simplified mental health interventions to residents, even though they have no clinical expertise. Some evaluations suggest this can be even more effective than primary care at helping people recover.

For example, Friendship Bench was created to help people with depression in Zimbabwe by setting up benches on the grounds of healthcare centres or in trusted community spaces, and training grandmothers — trusted figures in the community — to deliver a handful of sessions of simplified talk therapy on the benches.

Afterwards, those who’ve received care on the bench are moved to a peer-support group for maintenance. This effective, simple, cost-effective option to provide evidence-based mental health care in under-resourced settings is now spreading to America in cities like New York and New Orleans, and the Billion Minds Institute is working to connect such climate-mental health approaches (including friendship benches) to Medicaid.


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Win-win solutions for the climate and anxiety

There are opportunities for us to unlock virtuous cycles of win-win solutions for both climate change and its mental health impacts. At a micro-level, it is important that youth have other people in their lives with whom they can talk about the climate crisis and how it makes them feel.

Firstly, when groups of people who are grappling with climate anxiety come together to talk about those feelings, those individuals are unburdened by the stress of the feelings by expressing them. They also step out of painful isolation when they see how widely shared those feelings are.

Secondly, by talking together the individuals form a group where social connections can be strengthened, and the group can be the basis of future resilience, or a place to come back to when and if a climate disaster impacts them personally. Third, the group is the basis for taking collective action.

Even more so than organizations which are formed from a common belief or goal, a group which forms based on caring for one another’s wellbeing and shared grievances has tremendous potential for advocacy, imagination and cultural transformation; it is the stuff that social movements are made of.

We see the clear need for these kinds of climate anxiety support groups in school settings to help young people who are struggling with subclinical forms of climate anxiety, to prevent it from precipitating into something worse.

Research also suggests that intergenerational climate conversations within families can be an effective way to bring about change. One study found that tweens and teens, especially girls, are the most effective at convincing their parents that climate change is real and a priority that needs to be acted on.

Results showed that concerned daughters are especially effective at changing the minds of their conservative fathers. Conservative fathers had the lowest pre-existing concern about climate change but after these conversations showed the greatest growth in concern and attention towards the issue.

Collective climate action

At a more macro-level, by focusing on win-win solutions that co-benefit our efforts to address both the climate and mental health crises we face, we engage in a virtuous cycle of positive interventions that can help decision-makers make limited budgets go further.

For instance, we know that enacting programmes and policies that increase active transport like bicycling and walking instead of driving in cities is better for the climate and that the exercise improves people’s mental wellbeing. We know that improving the energy efficiency of housing is best for the climate and makes homes more affordable to heat, which reduces fuel poverty and improves mental health.

Overall, the best intervention to stop climate-mental health problems from spreading is collective climate action. Research shows that participating in climate activism can buffer against climate anxiety’s impairing impacts. Pro-environmental behaviours and forms of climate engagement that help individuals foster a sense of agency, efficacy and active hope are protective factors for wellbeing, and co-benefits to collective action itself. Another win-win.

Rethinking mental health in the era of climate anxiety

We need to think much more holistically about redesigning mental health systems to meet the needs of our young people in the era of climate anxiety, merging communication interventions at home, building in psychosocial supports where youth already are (i.e. at school) and pushing for action, advocacy and policy change at the system level.

By harnessing frugal innovations against climate anxiety that were created from low resource/high need contexts, we see the importance of solutions that are designed by the very people they are meant to serve.

Given the intergenerational injustice at play in the climate crisis, the saying “nothing about us without us” is crucial here, and to be effective, innovators in this space will have the most impact when they co-design climate anxiety solutions with climate-anxious youth themselves.

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