Psyche: When young people are afraid of climate change

In the hit Netflix series Ginny & Georgia, 16-year-old Marcus Baker is severely depressed. Among other things, he is burdened by the fact that the world is dying because of the climate crisis, he emphasizes. Even if the plot is based on fiction, what finds its way into pop culture is often based on reality.

Experts confirm that the climate crisis is taking a toll on many children and young people mentally. Looking to the future they would be scared, angry or desperate: What will the world be like in 10 or 20 years? Does it still make sense to have children? And why isn’t politics doing anything?

In a recent by the Bertelsmann Foundation published survey in Germany, 80 percent of respondents aged 12 to 18 expressed concern about climate change, 42 percent were very concerned.

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Psychologist Lea Dohm says that what young people are afraid of in relation to the climate crisis also depends on age German Alliance for Climate Change and Health: “We know that younger children, for example of primary school age, tend to have more specific fears, such as fear of fire or floods.” Young people, on the other hand, are more concerned with their own identity and the political frame of reference. A lack of climate protection is also associated with the government’s inaction.

Pauline Brünger, a spokeswoman for Fridays for Future, sees it similarly. In her experience, desperation, anger and powerlessness particularly arise among young people when they look at “the inaction of their own government”. According to Brünger, many young people feel left alone in this crisis. “It makes me angry, and it also makes me sad,” she says.

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Psychologist Dohm belongs to the Psychologists for Future initiative that supports the Fridays for Future movement. And she is a mother, which is also why she is concerned about the topic: “As a mother and as a psychotherapist, what is happening really annoys me. The World Health Organization says that the climate crisis is now the greatest health hazard of the century, and there are already authors who say that we are experiencing a chronic threat to children’s well-being with climate policy.”

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes what the future climate could look like in its last status report. “The very pessimistic case is that we are heading for global warming of more than four degrees,” says Andreas Marx from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig.

Most of the tipping points in the climate system would then have been reached and reactions such as the melting of some ice sheets could no longer be reversed. In addition, according to Marx, certain natural disasters would occur more frequently because their frequency would increase in proportion to average global warming. However, the researcher considers this scenario to be unlikely: “Four degrees is ultimately only possible if global climate protection fails completely.”

1.5 degrees still manageable?

In the most optimistic case, assume that 1.5 degree target is still to be done. “Although one has to say very clearly that there are not many scientists left who think this is realistic,” says Marx. To do this, climate protection would have to be implemented much more globally – “including the really big players like China, and it doesn’t look like that at all”.

The most likely scenario is currently global warming of 2.5 to 3 degrees. In this case, too, ice sheets could melt, forests in different climate zones could be damaged and more permafrost could thaw, releasing the extremely powerful greenhouse gas methane, says Marx.

However, he does not see the future quite so pessimistically – at least with regard to Germany. “At the end of the century, Germany will still be a favorable region in terms of climate.” It’s different in other regions of Europe, for example in the Mediterranean region. Drought is already a problem that will only get worse in the future. The vast majority of these regions will be among the losers.

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A study published in 2021 in the journal “The Lancet“. To do this, a team led by Caroline Hickman from the University of Bath surveyed 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 in ten countries on all continents about their thoughts and feelings about the climate crisis. More than half of all respondents reported sadness, fear, anger, powerlessness and helplessness as well as feelings of guilt.

More about the psyche of children

“I found it particularly worrying that many young people in this study agreed with the statement ‘Humanity is doomed’, that is, that mankind is lost,” emphasizes psychologist Dohm. Almost 56 percent of those surveyed said yes. A majority also rated the reactions of the governments to the crisis negatively, almost 59 percent felt cheated and later generations. And more than 45 percent of respondents said their feelings about climate change are having a negative impact on their daily lives.

Such feelings should not be pathologized, emphasizes Dohm. Especially since young people do not visit psychology practices more often because of climate feelings. Children and young people are more likely to come to therapy because of other issues. It was only then that it turned out that they also weighed on climate feelings.

The President of German Society for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, agrees. Young people often come with diffuse difficulties in coping with their everyday life and do not know where it comes from. If you then ask, fear of climate change is often the cause.

That’s why therapists should systematically ask about such fears, says the expert. “In the past, we didn’t always ask about abuse, and since we’ve been doing this systematically, we’ve often heard that it’s the cause of many complaints.”

anxiety disorders and depression

Only when fear of climate change leads to despair, incapacity to work or isolation can one arise anxiety disorder or depression develop, says Meyer-Lindenberg. However, there are several possible triggers for such diseases. Because the climate crisis is a real threat, it is normal to have negative feelings about your own future.

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So far, only a few studies have shown how the climate crisis is specifically affecting the mental health of children and adolescents in particular. “That’s because the phenomenon has only recently come into the focus of research,” says Meyer-Lindenberg. “But the studies that exist already say that there is a very high degree of concern about the climate among children and young people.”

Emotions such as fear, sadness and anger are important and right from a psychological point of view, emphasize both experts. According to Dohm, anger and anger are need indicators that indicate that something has meaning for people. These emotions lead to action, which in turn can help release stress.

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With anxiety it could be different. According to Dohm, people sometimes do not necessarily only react to fears in an action-oriented manner, but sometimes with suppression or avoidance. “But we know that in the climate movement, for example, many are also motivated by fears. This is then a healthy mechanism for coping with anxiety.”

“In general, fear is there to warn about something that can be dangerous and to trigger an appropriate reaction to it,” explains Meyer-Lindenberg. Activity can be helpful here: “Of course, as an individual, I cannot end the climate catastrophe. But there is a lot I can do, and I can make sure that everything in my area is climate-neutral.” This is an important step – not only for the climate, but also for your own mental health.

“We have to take the anger, fears and anger surrounding the climate crisis seriously, because it’s often uncomfortable, but it’s healthy and normal,” says psychologist Dohm. In addition, society should not burden children and young people with the responsibility for overcoming the crisis. That is the task of adults: “What really helps is a policy that limits global warming to 1.5 degrees.”

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