“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” —James Baldwin
Bad news about our planet can be overwhelming and can make us feel helpless. But perhaps we’re missing a trick. Perhaps we each have a tiny bit of the answer at our fingertips. Far from having to become a climate expert, maybe offering what we already know is enough.
When a child walks into a child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) clinic we need to be ready to listen. Really listen. This means knowing ourselves well enough to realise if we’re distracted or upset. We let the reality of the situation be heard, and we may witness extreme distress. The very act of doing this can facilitate change. However troubling the story, we do not get up and walk out of the room.
Over time, among risk and uncertainty, we work alongside the child to help find a way through what they are facing; exploring what interconnecting issues are causing the distress, supporting their wisdom and perspective, calling on our own skills and others’ as required.
And if the child tells us about something that is causing them harm, we act to do everything we can to safeguard that child.
A recent UNICEF report estimates that one billion children are at “extremely high risk” due to the climate crisis. In a recent survey of 10,000 children and young people in 10 countries, 75% believe “the future is frightening” and 64% say their governments are not doing enough to avoid a climate catastrophe. And something that adds a completely preventable exacerbation of distress: nearly half say they’ve been ignored or dismissed when they try to talk about it. Despite being exposed to these multiple layers of harm, children and young people are showing courage and resilience as they lead on climate solutions.
As Paul Hoggett eloquently describes, “We are living in a time when a tragedy which is without precedent is unfolding in front of our eyes.” On some level we all know what the science is saying, but a lot of us are acting as if we are separate from this reality. To not do so is extremely painful.
How can we each learn to bear the unbearable, so that we can hear—really hear—what our children are telling us? And to respond in a way that makes them want to tell us more? By amplifying their voices, supporting their actions, while stepping up ourselves to show that this is not their responsibility to fix. As mental health practitioners in the global North we carry influence that we can opt in to, or opt out of, using to this end.
We can acknowledge the power of our collective voice and focus on the systemic nature of the problem to “prescribe” the right treatment: drastic, just, climate action from the world’s most powerful.
The very act of making space for the reality of the situation to be heard, and bearing witness to the distress, in ourselves, in people who seek our support or on a wider stage, will facilitate change.
And there is a lot of distress right now.
If we could imagine the planet has feelings, I think we could imagine the pitch of her scream.
We don’t need to imagine the pain of young people. They have had to march the streets and take governments to court to ask to be protected.
What do we imagine is the next step for them if they continue to feel frightened, betrayed, and abandoned?
We can validate feelings of fear, grief, anger, panic, and sadness as understandable responses to the threat we are facing. We can help raise awareness that this is a sign of connection and compassion. This is not mental disorder. However, we can speak up to say that an enormous source of stress like the climate crisis will trigger or exacerbate serious mental illness in some.
We can find training to better understand the issues and to develop additional skills and strengths we will need in this unfolding crisis. We can seek to understand our own feelings better and reach out for support if required.
We can work across professional and generational boundaries to develop communities and resources of support. To find ways together to transform what individually can feel like overwhelming pain, distress, and grief about our predicament; from a draining, debilitating force into unquenchable fires in our bellies that connect us to each other and to what we love. A feeling of connection to the millions of other people across the world who are developing beautiful, creative, climate solutions and the optimism this brings is one of the surprisingly life-affirming elements of facing the reality of this crisis.
No one of us knows what lies ahead, nor what’s the “best thing” to do. However, once we have started to face the reality, standing shoulder to shoulder with other people, we will see things more clearly.
We need to show in how we act and what we say that we’re in this together. That we care about the world, we care about our young people and future generations, and that, however bad it feels, we won’t walk out of the room.
Catriona Mellor is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with an interest in the mental health impacts of the eco-crisis on children and young people as well as what nature-based practices and insights can add to mental health care. Catriona is co-author on a 2021 quantitative global study into children and young people’s emotions and thoughts about climate change to be published in The Lancet Planetary Health. She is currently riding from London to Glasgow to raise awareness around air pollution and the climate health emergency on Ride for their Lives https://climateacceptancestudios.com/ridefortheirlives
Competing interests: none declared.
- UNICEF. One billion children at ‘extremely high risk’ of the impacts of the climate crisis. UNICEF 2021. Available at: https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/one-billion-children-extremely-high-risk-impacts-climate-crisis-unicef (accessed 15 Oct 2021).
- Hickman C. & Marks E., Pihkala P., Clayton S., Lewandowski E., Mayal E., Wray B., Mellor C., van Susteren L. (2021) A global survey of climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change. Pre-print available at Lancet Planetary Health https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3918955
- The #Youth4ClimateLive Series https://youth4climate.live/
- Hoggett, Paul,(Ed.) (2019). Climate Psychology: On Indifference to Disaster. Palgrave Macmillan.