Eco distress: for young people

This webpage is aimed at young people and is about eco distress – it explains how understanding the distress and having some tools to cope with it can help people feel better and take action at the same time.

Disclaimer

This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

Eco distress (sometimes called ‘eco-anxiety’), is a way of describing how people feel when they hear bad news about our planet and the environment1.  These can be things like warmer temperatures around the world, events like floods, fires or drought, harm to animals and their natural habitats, and other worldwide problems like the COVID-19 pandemic.

You might feel anxious, worried, upset, scared, sad, angry, or unsure about the future when you think about or hear about these problems2. You might see photos of natural disasters online or on social media, learn about it at school, or you might see a news report on TV.


Yes it is. You are not alone in this - a lot of children and young people in the UK worry about our planet. 3

This is normal and it shows that you care about others and the world around you. 

But if you feel worried all the time, it can affect your mental health, so it’s important for you to understand how you feel, how to look after yourself and how others can help you. 2, 4 

With everyday worries, like doing something for the first time, you will usually feel less worried after someone has given you a little encouragement or you have done the task. You can usually feel more in control over these worries.

But it is difficult to be comforted about the problems in the environment as they are too big for us to solve on our own.   


You may feel: 

  • breathless, sweaty, sick 
  • headachy, tense or fidgety
  • anxious, fearful, panicky
  • upset, tearful, irritable, negative
  • angry, frustrated, furious
  • guilty, hopeless, drained
  • on edge, numb, withdrawn
  • fine – these feelings can come and go.

You may think: 

  • things can’t be as bad as the scientists say 
  • a major disaster will happen soon
  • about death and dying of animals and people
  • grown-ups should be doing more
  • about not having children
  • what’s the point in going to school or developing a career? 
  • you have a huge responsibility to make changes and convince other people to do the same 
  • you don’t want to think about it anymore, and switch off whenever the topic comes up 

You may notice changes in:

  • your sleep pattern
  • your motivation
  • the amount of energy you have to get up and do things
  • your ability to concentrate on things like homework or reading.

1. Be aware of the situation

  • Keep up to date with information about the environment. Talk to an adult, or look up a reliable website or charity. Remember that you don’t have to be an expert.
  • Take care not to overload yourself with too much information. Give yourself time to switch off and focus on other things, like doing activities you enjoy.

2. Understand, experience and cope with the feelings that come up 

  • Remember that these feelings make sense. They are a sign that you care about other people and the environment.
  • Express how you feel. People have different ways of doing this, like writing, creating art, playing music, or doing things like making a self-soothe box. Talking to people who understand can also help.
  • Look after your own mental health and wellbeing by:
    • eating healthy food, getting enough sleep and exercise 
    • spending time with your family and friends 
    • making time for being creative – find what activities make you happy 
    • not using drugs or alcohol to cope with feelings.
  • Stay hopeful and connected:
    • Spend time in nature. This could be playing or reading outside, planting seeds or taking a walk somewhere you love.
    • Talk to people. There are many others feeling the same way. Talking to people can be reassuring and can improve your self-esteem and your confidence.  
    • Remember there are lots of people working on solutions that will make the world happier, healthier and safer.

3. Take action and do something differently, however small it feels 

  • Always remember this is everyone’s responsibility, not just yours. The situation is not your fault and you are not responsible for changing it.
  • Think about connecting with groups of young people, either in your local area or online, who feel the same way about the environment. 
  • Taking action can help us feel more in control, more hopeful and more resilient. You can choose what changes feel right for you, for example:
    • Help nature by planting wildlife friendly flowers, a tree or making a bird feeder
    • Start talking to your classmates, friends or family members about the environment 
    • Reduce the amount of rubbish you make – carry a refillable water bottle or bring your own bag when you go shopping
    • Talk to your family about ways you can help, like eating less meat, buying less stuff, finding ways to re-use things instead of throwing them away, travelling more by walking, cycling or taking public transport. 

Remember small changes make a big difference.

If you have tried lots of things to help yourself feel better, but you are feeling overwhelmed, are having trouble sleeping, are thinking about hurting yourself, or struggling to cope everyday, you may need to get more help. 

It’s a good idea to speak to your parents who can take you to see your GP. Or you can speak to a teacher that you trust, or the wellbeing support staff at your school. 

They will be able to give you advice on what to do, or they may suggest that you see a mental health professional, like someone from your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). See our factsheet on Who’s Who in CAMHS for more information. 

The type of help you get will depend on how you are feeling. 

I remember hearing the news when I was younger, I think I was in year 3. That was when I heard about what state the world was in. I heard about the ice caps melting and all the pollution going up into the atmosphere.

It can make me feel sad and depressed. I sometimes feel let down by adults. I feel upset and angry and don’t know what to do. It’s hard to feel positive when we’re in this mess.

I know more about it now. Humans are damaging the world. Ice caps melt, then animals become extinct then humans will become extinct and we don’t have the space equipment to find another planet to live on, even if there was another planet out there.

So we need to help out. Now or never.

When I get worried too much I make sure I do things I enjoy like playing sport, hanging out with my friends, or talking to my Dad.

It helps when he reminds me there are millions of grown-ups around the world who are working hard on fixing the problems.

My Dad helps me think of things I can go out and do to help, like planting seeds and making sure I throw away my rubbish and recycle properly.

Doing stuff about it does help me feel better and makes me feel good about helping the world. 

I think I have always been aware of the environmental crisis, from those around me and the occasional mention in school.

Thinking about the future makes me feel very powerless. I try to deal with this by making small changes to feel some control in the situation – like going vegetarian and using public transport or my bike more.

I also feel a lot of sadness at the loss that damage to our environment represents, loss that is already happening. Spending time talking about it with my friends and paying more attention to nature helps, and in some ways this sadness makes me appreciate the environment even more.

I also feel guilty as someone who is safe from the current effects of damage to the environment. How is it fair that I am part of the problem, but less vulnerable to the consequences?

What has been most helpful is sharing how I feel with other people. After going to my first protest about the environment, I felt different. I still find the environmental crisis terrifying, but seeing and experiencing that we can make things change really helped me to feel supported, more in control and less alone. 

It helps me to remember that there ARE people who feel the same. I also need to remember that although one person making a change DOES have an impact, that doesn’t mean it is all up to one person to carry the burden. Cheesy as it is, we should all be in this together.

1. Be aware of the situation

2. Understand, experience and cope with the multiple emotions that emerge

  • See our ‘ U can cope’ information for what to do when you are feeling stressed
  • Childline: Get help and advice for your mental health, online or over the phone: 0800 11 11
  • Kooth: Online support for young people
  • Samaritans: Provides free, confidential help and support, 24/7. Call 116 123
  • Young Minds: Provides information on how to cope and ask for help, including how to make a self-soothe box
  • Youth Access: Offers information, advice and counselling to young people

3. Decide what to ‘do’ next

Join with others, such as:

Join local nature connection groups for example:

Help educate other young people:

  • Teach the Future: A youth-led campaign to re-orient the English education system around the environmental crisis.  

References

  1. Usher K, Durkin J, Bhullar N. Eco‐anxiety: How thinking about climate change‐related environmental decline is affecting our mental health. Int J Mental Health Nursing. 2019;28:1233-1234.
  2. Burke S, Sanson A, Van Hoorn J. The psychological effects of climate change on children. Curr. Psychiatry Rep. 2018;20:35.
  3. Lee K, Gjersoe N, O'Neill S, Barnett J. Youth perceptions of climate change: A narrative synthesis. WIREs Clim Change. 2020;11:e641. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.641
  4. Berry HL, Waite TD, Dear KBG, Capon AG, Murray V. The case for systems thinking about climate change and mental health. Nature climate change. 2018;8(1): 282-290.

Credits

Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB) and the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health.

Author: Dr Catriona Mellor

Grateful thanks to Dr Alan Kellas, Dr Caroline Hickman, Dr Lynne Jones, Dr Bernadka Dubicke, Dr Steve Pearce, Vicki Harris, NeurOx Young People’s Advisory Group.

About this information

This information reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing. This mental health information for young people was written in 2020.

©  November 2020 Royal College of Psychiatrists