You’re not the only one feeling helpless. Eco-anxiety can reach far beyond bushfire communities



Rolling images and stories of bushfire devastation can take a toll.
From shutterstock.com

Fiona Charlson, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

You’re scrolling through your phone and transfixed by yet more images of streets reduced to burnt debris, injured wildlife, and maps showing the scale of the fires continuing to burn. On the television in the background, a woman who has lost her home breaks down, while news of another life lost flashes across the screen.

You can’t bear to watch anymore, but at the same time, you can’t tear yourself away. Sound familiar?

We’ve now been confronted with these tragic images and stories for months. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by the bushfires, it’s completely normal to feel sad, helpless, and even anxious.

Beyond despairing about the devastation so many Australians are facing, some of these emotions are likely to be symptoms of “eco-anxiety”.




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The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change affects our mental health, too


If you’re feeling down, you’re not alone

Research on previous bushfire disasters shows people directly affected are more likely to suffer mental health consequences than those who have not been directly affected.

After Black Saturday, about one in five people living in highly affected communities experienced persistent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or psychological distress.

Recognising this as a critical issue, the Australian government has announced funding to deliver mental health support to affected people and communities.

But living in an unaffected area doesn’t mean you’re immune. In addition to contending with rolling images and stories of devastation, we’ve seen flow-on effects of the bushfires reach far beyond affected areas.

For example, schools and workplaces have been closed, people have been forced to cancel their summer holidays, and sports matches and community events have been called off. This disruption to normal activities can result in uncertainty and distress, particularly for children and young people.

What is eco-anxiety?

Distress around the current fires may be compounded by – and intertwined with – a pervasive sense of fear and anxiety in relation to climate change-related events.

The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

While concern and anxiety around climate change are normal, eco-anxiety describes a state of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale, complexity and seriousness of the problems we’re facing. It can be accompanied by guilt for personal contributions to the problem.




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The Australian bushfires may have signalled a “tipping point” for many people who held a passive attitude towards climate change, and even many who have held a more active view of climate denialism. In the face of current circumstances, the crisis of climate change now becomes almost impossible to ignore.

While eco-anxiety is not a diagnosable mental disorder, it can have significant impacts on a person’s well-being.

Whether you think you’re suffering from eco-anxiety or more general stress and depression about the bushfires, here are some things you can do.

We’re pretty resilient, but support helps

We’re now living with the environmental consequences of a changing climate, and this requires people to adapt. Fortunately, most of us are innately resilient and are able to overcome stress and losses and to live with uncertainty.

We can enhance this resilience by connecting with friends and family and positively engaging in our communities. Making healthy choices around things like diet, exercise and sleep can also help.

Further, supporting those who are vulnerable has benefits for both the person giving and receiving assistance. For example, parents have a critical role in listening to their children’s concerns and providing appropriate guidance.




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Become part of the solution

Seeking to reduce your own carbon footprint can help alleviate feelings of guilt and helplessness – in addition to the positive difference these small actions make to the environment.

This might include walking, cycling and taking public transport to get around, and making sustainability a factor in day-to-day decisions like what you buy and what you eat.

Seeking support from friends and family can help.
From shutterstock.com

Joining one of the many groups advocating for the environment also provides a voice for people concerned about the changing climate.

Finally, there are many ways you can provide assistance to bushfire relief efforts. The generosity shown by Australians and others internationally has provided a sense of hope at a time when many are facing enormous hardship.

Seeking professional help

Some people, particularly those living with unrelated psychological distress, will find it harder to adapt to increased stress. Where their emotional resources are already depleted, it becomes more difficult to accommodate change.

Although we don’t yet have research on this, it’s likely people with pre-existing mental health problems will be more vulnerable to eco-anxiety.

If this is you, it’s worthwhile seeking professional help if you feel your mental health is deteriorating at this time.




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Whether or not you have a pre-existing mental health disorder, if you’re feeling depressed or anxious to a degree it’s affecting your work, education or social functioning, you should seek advice from a health professional.

Evidence-based psychological interventions like cognitive behavioural therapy reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving mental health and well-being.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Fiona Charlson, Conjoint NHMRC Early Career Fellow, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, Professor of Psychiatry and Head of Mental Health, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfires can make kids scared and anxious: here are 5 steps to help them cope


Toni Noble, Australian Catholic University

More than 600 schools have been closed, and some damaged, in recent days as bushfires rage across Queensland and New South Wales. Some students have been urgently evacuated while in school. People have lost homes and animals and are experiencing significant distress.

Research shows somewhere between 7% and 45% of children suffer depression after experiencing a natural disaster. Children more at risk of depression include those who were trapped during the event; experienced injury, fear, or bereavement; witnessed injury or death; and had poor social support.

The Victorian Education Department commissioned us after the 2009 Black Saturday fires to train teachers in seven fire-affected regions in methods to foster resilience in children.




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Teachers told us their students had experienced distressing emotions including high anxiety, fear and even panic during the event. Comments from teachers included:

Their world had changed forever; they became more fearful.

Some children were very frightened and for a long time stayed close to their parents.

Many children became scared and anxious about worldwide issues.

Their anxiety was triggered by the smell of smoke, a fire engine’s siren or a foggy day.

The teachers we interviewed also noted children’s profound sense of loss (of their homes, pets and livestock). Many students knew someone who had lost a family member or friend.

One teacher said:

The fires opened students’ eyes to what a disaster is. Not just something you see on TV.

We trained teachers using our Bounce Back program – a research-based social and emotional learning program first published in 2003. Most children are resilient and will bounce back quickly. Only a small minority may be at risk of ongoing anxiety and there are ways to minimise that risk.

How to help kids cope now

Try to stay calm and reassuring. Children take cues from the adults in their lives. If adults show fear and nervousness, children tend to mirror these emotions.

Try to focus on the small positives such as “we are all safe”. You can list the things that haven’t changed, such as your children’s friends. Reassure them other people such as family, friends, teachers and their community will help and that life will return to normal.

Everyone feels sad, anxious or upset when a bushfire burns near their home. By helping your child name their feeling, you are helping them feel more in control. Here are five steps to encourage your children to do this:

  1. take notice when your child is feeling sad, frightened, angry or upset
  2. encourage your child to talk about what’s troubling them, and listen and show you understand how they are feeling
  3. name the emotion in words your child can understand – are they “worried”, “scared”, “a bit frightened” or “sad”?
  4. help your child understand it’s normal to feel that strong emotion and help them to sit with their feelings
  5. finish with a hopeful or optimistic statement they can do something to help make things feel better. This may include something physical (such as going for a walk or throwing a basketball through a hoop), something that creates positive feelings (like playing with a pet or friend, or drawing), or doing something kind or helpful for someone else.

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back after hardship.

To help your child bounce back, you can communicate that:

  • life is mainly good but now and then everyone has a difficult or unhappy time
  • although things aren’t good now and it might take a while to improve, it’s important to stay hopeful and expect things to get better
  • you will feel better and have more ideas about what to do if you talk to someone you trust about what’s worrying or upsetting you
  • unhelpful thinking (“our family will never get a nice home again”) isn’t necessarily true and makes you feel worse
  • helpful thinking (“it might take a while to get our home back again but it will happen”) makes you feel better because it is more accurate and helps you work out what to do.



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Ignoring young people’s climate change fears is a recipe for anxiety


Coping after the event

Children with strong emotional support, such as from family and friends, are better able to cope with adversity.

Friendships may be disrupted after bushfires because of family relocations. Helping children connect via social media or phone with friends can reduce their sense of isolation.

Getting children back to school and regular routines can be one of the best ways to help their resilience.

Teachers are encouraged to allow time for children to talk about the bushfires and their feelings about them during class.

The teachers who participated in the Bounce Back program after Black Saturday explicitly taught children the skills for being optimistic and resilient – such as to challenge their unhelpful thinking and understand everybody, not just you, experiences setbacks sometimes.

They also taught kids skills for regulating their emotions and everyday courage to face their fears.

They used circle-time discussions of picture books and media stories to allow them to talk about their own experiences in a safe way.




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We held focus groups with children of different ages in five of the primary schools that used our Bounce Back program. The children told us they: “know now what to do when something goes wrong”; “focus on more positives”; “don’t think the worst now”; “know things change”; “have learnt that sometimes you just have to put up with it”; and “now feel it’s easier to get back up in bad times”.

While a disaster can be challenging for children, a supportive home and school environment, together with coping skills, can help children recover reasonably quickly and get back to normal life.The Conversation

Toni Noble, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Positive Psychology & Education, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change affects our mental health, too



People who have been affected by extreme weather events might experience mental health issues.
From shutterstock.com

Fiona Charlson, The University of Queensland

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) recently declared climate change a health emergency, reflecting similar positions taken by a growing list of peak medical bodies around the world.

The AMA’s statement highlights the significant impacts climate change is having on physical health, including an increase in climate-related deaths. The World Health Organisation regards climate change as “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st Century”.

But the statement also draws the very important issue of mental health out of the shadows.




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Climate change can affect people’s mental health in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly.

We know experiencing extreme weather events is a risk factor for mental illness. And many thousands of people around the world are displaced from their homes as a result of climate events, putting them at perhaps even higher risk of mental illness.

More generally, people feeling distressed about the state of the planet may find themselves in a spiral of what’s been termed “eco-anxiety”.

Extreme weather events and psychological distress

Unprecedented weather events across Australia are already demonstrating clear and devastating impacts on the mental health of Australians, particularly in rural areas which are being hit the hardest by unseasonal drought, fires and floods.

These extreme weather events have resulted in the loss of homes, land and livelihoods. Research has found these experiences are taking a significant psychological toll on Australian farmers, who feel their sense of place and identities are under threat. Meanwhile, we’ve seen increasing rates of suicide among rural communities.

Elsewhere in the world, research similarly shows being affected by extreme weather events is a major risk factor for mental illness. This was evident, for example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the United States.




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Climate-related displacement

Long-term environmental changes, including once fertile land turning to desert, erosion of soil and coastlines, and sea level rise, are predicted to result in large-scale displacement, a major risk factor for mental illness.

Global statistics already estimate that in 2017 the majority of people forced from their homes around the world were displaced as a result of climate-related disasters.

Parents sometimes worry about how climate change will affect their children’s lives in the future.
From shutterstock.com

In Australia, low-lying islands such as those in the Torres Strait are at the forefront of this reality, with relocation plans already under consideration.

At the extremes, the reality of climate-induced social instability is already tangible across numerous countries, and the Asia-Pacific region is considered as high risk.

The existential dread of climate change

For many Australians, the existential dread of what the future holds in the face of unmitigated climate change is having documented impacts on their mental health. Australia’s youth have been exemplary at voicing their despair and “eco-anxiety” around the foreseeable deterioration of our planet.

For those too young to have a voice, parents are feeling anxiety and distress on their behalf. Mums and dads are under pressure to instil values such as caring for the environment, while worrying about the future of the planet they are leaving their children.




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And this emerging narrative of how climate change is impacting people’s mental health is not complete. The relationships between climate events and mental health are complex and not always apparent.

Extreme heat has been observed to be harmful to multiple aspects of mental health and well-being. Data from South Australia demonstrates hot days are associated with increased hospital admissions for mental and behavioural disorders.

Other research has found spikes in temperature were associated with increased suicide rates in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart.

A less obvious impact arises from the strong connection between nutritional status and mental health. Climate-related impacts on agriculture lead to reduced availability of nutritious foods, and poor nutritional intake can affect mental health.




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So, what can be done?

The AMA’s recent statement has echoed calls from other medical associations for leadership on a national strategy for health and climate change. But what is it we can be doing to protect people from climate change-related mental health challenges?

Doing everything we can to reduce the progression of climate change is one clear way to address this issue.

But with the knowledge the climate crisis is only escalating, some practical responses will focus on preparing the health system for climate change. This should include increasing awareness of the mental health effects of climate change across the community, private, and government sectors.

It will also be important to invest in areas where mental health services are under-resourced, which are often the rural areas where the mental health effects of climate change are likely be most severe.




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A small but significant consolation is the public awareness being generated through the tireless work of advocacy groups and purposeful media reporting of farmers’ personal stories of distress.

Climate change adaptation strategies are in their infancy, but already we’re seeing some programs aimed at strengthening communities, particularly rural communities most severely affected by drought.

There will be no single solution to address the mental health impacts of climate change; a broad perspective and a range of actions will be necessary. As the climate crisis continues to unravel in Australia and globally, this will require strong leadership and some innovative thinking.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Fiona Charlson, the author of this piece, is available for a Q+A on Wednesday the 18th of September from 2pm-3pm AEST to take questions on this topic. Please post your questions in the comments below.The Conversation

Fiona Charlson, Conjoint NHMRC Early Career Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ignoring young people’s climate change fears is a recipe for anxiety


Rachael Sharman, University of the Sunshine Coast and Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.


Thousands of school students across Australia are expected to join in the global protest today calling for action on climate change.

This isn’t the first time students in Australia have rallied against climate change – many took to the streets in March. But today is expected to be one of the biggest protests as they’ll be joined by others, including many workers.




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The participation of our school students is a sign of how seriously they see climate change. As the organising website says:

We are striking from school to tell our politicians to take our futures seriously and treat climate change for what it is – a crisis.

By the end of this century, average temperatures on the surface of our planet are predicted to be more than two degrees Celsius or higher than today. The average level of the ocean surface could be more than a metre higher. Such changes will challenge the ways we live now.

There are plenty of evidence-based projections of future climate readily available, such as the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But then there are denial, scepticism and misconceptions about climate change that confuse people and create unnecessary fear and anxiety, especially in school-age students.

Young people are still developing their ability to critically reason, contextualise and realistically assess risk. They are vulnerable to emotion-charged information and less likely to understand the possible agendas of people with differing ideas.

Fear and anxiety about climate change

Anxiety is a form of fear we experience when a threat is not immediate or catastrophic but has the potential to be so. It can be useful when it mobilises us to act on a problem.

Two important criteria underpin both fear and anxiety. You find yourself faced with a potentially dangerous situation that appears to be uncontrollable and unpredictable.

Either unpredictability or uncontrollability on their own can lead to a fear or anxiety response. In concert together they form a perfect storm of stress and confusion.

Looking at climate change through this emotional lens, we can certainly see the element of uncontrollability. Some climate scientists and activists believe we have started a chain reaction that is almost irreversible.

Most climate scientists are careful not to talk about predictions of future climate and favour model-informed projections. That still gives us an idea of the nature of our future world, at least for most of the rest of this century.

This knowledge encourages the perception that we can control or mitigate certain aspects of climate change. From a human point of view, this brings us some relief.

But the anxiety related to the impending climate change should not be underestimated. Some researchers list it as a top concern for population mental health.

It is therefore not surprising that many of our younger generations feel particularly anxious about the impacts of climate change.

On the one hand, teenagers are especially sensitive to fear-based messages as they have a tendency to catastrophise – they imagine the worst possible outcome.

For example, in the last century, it was the threat of a nuclear war that caused anxiety in many children.

Fast forward to today and climate change is seen as the next big threat for future generations.

How to ease the anxiety

Today’s school students know they will inherit the fallout of climate change. They will live to see their children and grandchildren doing the same. So they have reason to be concerned, and anxiety may mobilise useful action.

So what can we reasonably say to teens who are feeling shut out of the debate and experiencing heightened anxiety about their future?

Adaptation is one of the most valuable skills of the human species. Understand that we can and must adapt to the impacts of climate change.




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Climate change isn’t new so we will need to work together to care for the Earth and one another. Importantly, taking an interest in understanding why and how things happen helps us to manage them (rather than sticking our collective heads in the sand and engaging in denial).

While there is genuine cause for some anxiety, a fear reaction that is out of place or disproportionate to the actual threat serves very little actual purpose other than leaving a person in great distress.

Listening to the valid concerns of school students, and engaging them in discussions about the mitigation and adaptation strategies we will need to adopt, will go some way towards easing their fears and anxieties.The Conversation

Rachael Sharman, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of the Sunshine Coast and Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, School of Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.