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Reflections on students' feelings on climate change

August 29, 2023
Dr Rhiannon Thompson, Imperial College London

SOS-UK recently carried out research with students in higher and further education on their feelings about climate change.  Dr Rhiannon Thompson from the Imperial College London School of Public Health, who is part of Imperial's ‘Climate Cares’ team shares her reflections on the research.

What is climate change and how might it affect mental health?

Climate change is the shift in the earth’s temperature and average weather patterns. Although these things have fluctuated naturally throughout our planet’s history, the widespread use of fossil fuels has caused particularly fast changes in the last century. This has already led to loss of plant and animal life and biodiversity, climate-related disasters, and dangerous heatwaves. Scientists warn of climate ‘tipping points’ - shifts in the planetary system with irreversible impacts - and many view climate change as a serious risk to humanity’s survival. Understandably, for some this has caused worry and distress. Some groups thought to be particularly at risk are those who engage with climate issues professionally and young people; both groups will include a lot of students.

SOS-UK research and other findings

2503 students were surveyed on their feelings about climate change in April 2023. 77% reported being ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ worried about climate change and its effects. This is consistent with data from the ONS (Office for National Statistics) Opinions and Lifestyle Survey 2022 which found 74% of a sample of 3,990 adults in Great Britain aged 16+ were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ worried. This was also consistent with a study of 10,000 young people (16-25) from 10 countries, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, found that 84% were‘extremely’, ‘very’ or ‘moderately’ worried. Despite the fact research has focussed on under 25s as an ‘at-risk’ group, the SOS-UK survey actually found that the 30+ group was most likely to be ‘very worried’ and second most likelyto be ‘fairly worried'. In the ONS survey, the highest proportion of people who were ‘very worried’ (37%) were 25-34 year olds (the youngest group being 16-24,who were ‘very worried’ at the same level as 35-49 year olds, both 34%).

In the SOS-UK survey, respondents were asked how strongly they feel a series of emotions in relation to climate change - the most felt emotions were ‘interested’ (69% ‘very’ or ‘moderately’ strongly), ‘helpless’ (63%), ‘sad’ (62%), ‘anxious’ (51%) and ‘angry’ (50%). This was also comparable to previous studies in 16-25 year olds. 60% agreed with the statement ‘at times I find myself thinking and worrying what the world will be like in the future because of climate change’ strongly, mostly, or moderately. When asked ‘Do your thoughts or feelings around climate change ever interfere with your wellbeing or cause problems for you in any way?’ on a scale of 1-5 (‘not at all’ to ‘extremely/significantly’), 12% rated a 4 or a 5. Overall, this shows that many experience negative emotions about climate change, but only a minority find it actively disruptive to their general wellbeing or functioning.

The potential value in challenging emotions  

Most surveyed students experienced negative emotions about climate change. It’s important to remember that negative or challenging emotions themselves are not a bad thing or a mental health problem. Happy healthy lives include a range of ups and downs, and negative emotions alert us to problems and motivate us to change or avert things. Many researchers have argued that it is adaptive and rational to experience challenging emotions around climate change. With regards to whether challenging emotions like anxiety motivate climate action, the evidence is mixed and may depend on the emotions themselves or other psychological constructs. For example, anger may lend itself more to action than eco-depression or eco-anxiety, and self-efficacy (our belief that the things we do make a difference) may be important for turning challenging emotions into action. 

When challenging emotions become dysfunctional

However, the SOS-UK survey and wider research shows that for a sizeable minority, these worries are not constructive and are actively dysfunctional - potentially disruptive to general functioning, wellbeing, and quality of life . There’s also evidence that worries about climate change are correlated with mental health issues,  although the direction of thisrelationship isn’t entirely clear (that is, we’re not sure whether emotions about climate cause mental health issues, mental health issues cause emotions about climate change, or both directions). Even if only disruptive to functionality and quality of life for a minority (for example, 12% of people in the SOS-UK research said it interfered with their wellbeing and/or caused problems for them) these people still require support and this still presents a significant public mental health concern.

What can we do about this? What can people do if they’re struggling?
  • Seek support and community by finding others to talk to who have shared experiences or are sensitive to these issues (e.g. climate-aware therapists, support groups, friends, other activists/volunteers, Climate Café).
  • Take a break from news and media about climate change or moderate your information. There is evidence that media and news can be distressing. However, media that is hopeful and empowering, e.g. that shares success stories and solutions, may encourage people to find meaning and purpose, rather than feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. It could be helpful to reflect on how different platforms, news providers and accounts make you feel, and switch from/unfollow those that make you feel disempowered or overwhelmed, to those that provide information which feels constructive.
  • Do something about it - take action. Getting involved in activism or local environmental volunteering might make you feel more hopeful and empowered. Working on your local area may also present mental health benefits in terms of physical activity and being in green space. Here are some links with ways to get involved:

- Read 9 actions you can take - as recommended by climate scientists at The Grantham Institute

- Find out more about taking action with SOS-UK

- Find out about volunteering in your community or online

- Access the Force of Nature portal for young people

However, top-down political and systemic change is also required to combat climate change. Whilst there’s a lot you can do personally for your own mental health and to help the planet, it’s important not to put the onus on yourself to solve climate change or blame yourself for struggling with it. Governments and large corporations have a responsibility to act now to protect the wellbeing of all living beings. So, whilst taking action is important, this should not be to the detriment of your mental health. Make sure you don’t take on more than you can manage. It’s okay to have periods which are less proactive or engaged, and to enjoy your life and not work on these issues 24/7. Monitor your wellbeing and keep your life balanced, including time that is disconnected from thinking about climate change (e.g. with friends and family, in nature, exercising, doing hobbies and creative activities).

Dr Rhiannon Thompson is a post-doctoral research associate at Imperial College currently investigating the impact of the physical environment, climate change, and environmental action on young people's mental health. She’s part of the cross-departmental Climate Cares team of researchers, designers, policymakers and educators aiming to understand and support mental health in the current climate and ecological crises.

If you're interested in reading more about SOS-UK's research, you can access the full report.