The climate crisis is taking a toll on the mental health of children and young people

Online news
20 November 2020
  • Over half (57%) of child and adolescent psychiatrists in England are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment.
  • The Royal College of Psychiatrists launches first resource to support children & young people and their parents to manage anxiety and fears about the environment.

Over half (57%) of child and adolescent psychiatrists surveyed in England are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment, according to a new survey from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. 

Global warming, events like floods, fires or drought and harm to animals as a result of habitat destruction are affecting the mental health of younger generations, who now face even more uncertainty about their future because of the pandemic. 

The wide range of emotions and thoughts young people may experience when they hear bad news about our planet and the environment is called eco distress – also known as eco-anxiety. Common eco distress signs include: 

  • low mood 
  • helplessness
  • anger 
  • losing sleep 
  • panic 
  • guilt.

Eco distress is not a diagnosis or mental illness. Feeling distressed or anxious about the world is normal and shows that young people care about the planet, but sometimes these feelings can be overwhelming and hard to deal with, especially at a young age.  

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, Chair of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “The climate crisis is clearly affecting children and young people’s mental health. Younger generations are growing up with a constant backdrop of understandable fear and worry about their future and the future of the planet.

“We need to be able to have open conversations and really listen to our young people. Empowering young people to engage with constructive, positive action, should absolutely be supported. We hope our new resources will help young people to develop healthy ways of dealing with distress.”

Charlotte, 16, Southampton, said: “The climate crisis is terrifying and confusing. There are lot of emotions to cope with. I have felt powerless to do anything, sad about what we are losing and guilty about my own impact.

“Taking action, even small steps, has helped me feel more in control, whether through talking to other people, going on a climate strike, or changing what I consume and how I travel. Young people also need to remember it isn’t just up to us to fix this. We need society to change.”

Parents and carers can take steps to help children and young people manage these feelings and stop them from becoming overwhelmed. Some practical suggestions and tips:  

  • Listen to children and young people and take their feelings seriously. Explain to them that their feelings make sense and are a sign that they are a caring person. 
  • Spend time in nature as a family. This could be playing or reading outside, planting seeds or taking a walk somewhere you love. 
  • Support them to take action to feel more in control, more hopeful and more resilient. For example, if it feels appropriate, they can connect with groups of young people (either in your local area or online) who have the same concerns about the environment.  
  • Work out your family’s carbon footprint and come up with ways to reduce it.
  • Remind your child that there are lots of people working on solutions that will make the world happier, healthier and safer.  

Find more tips on the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eco distress pages for parents and carers and for young people. We have also produced a podcast where Dr Catriona Mellor, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and member of our Sustainability Committee, joined two young people for a conversation about eco-distress and the impact of the climate crisis on our mental wellbeing.

The College is soon due to publish a position statement on the climate and ecological emergencies that sets out how these crises are impacting mental health and how we must act to tackle them. 

For further information, please contact: