Responding to students’ climate change concerns

We’ve heard a lot about the physical impacts of climate change this year, but what about the psychological impacts on children? And how should school staff deal with them? Three experts in the field, Chloe Watfern, Blanche Savage and Cybele Dey, explore the issue.

Climate change affects the lives of students across Australia and the world, mainly through extreme weather events. For example, 331 schools were closed at the peak of the floods in northern NSW earlier this year.

Students’ exposure to climate-driven natural disasters increases their risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and they are at increased risk of mental distress on very hot days.

Simply knowing about climate change can cause young people fear and anxiety. A recent global survey of 10,000 young people (aged 16-25) found that over 80 per cent were worried about climate change, and more than 45 per cent reported that their feelings affected their day-to-day functioning.

The toll of climate change on school-aged children and young people’s mental health is huge, but often overlooked. It is no wonder that many feel deep distress – they are on the front line, facing a future of escalating crises and ecological loss over which they have no control.

Climate distress is a valid response to a real threat, motivating students to take meaningful action and connect with others who share their concerns. However, it can also be debilitating.

The way adults respond to young people when they express concern or distress about climate change can shape how they cope. Teachers and school counsellors are often the first people school students come to with their fears, frustrations, and sadness about climate change.

There are many free resources online that can help school staff understand climate distress in their students and respond to them in appropriate ways.

Below are some practical points to help school staff support their students with climate distress.

Acknowledge climate feelings in ourselves

We each bring our own emotional responses to climate change, and we may have had our own experiences of ecological loss or natural disaster, from bushfire to drought or flood.

To respond well to a student’s climate distress, adults need to have processed their own feelings.

There are many ways to do this: try writing them down (for example, start with, ‘climate change makes me feel…’), or connecting with others through support networks like the climate cafes offered by Psychology for a Safe Climate.

Validate feelings in students

It is appropriate, but not universal, for school-aged children to be distressed about climate change. The climate crisis is real, and the best available scientific evidence predicts increased warming over coming decades.

False reassurance or avoiding students’ distress about climate change is likely to worsen, not improve, their mental health. It is helpful when trusted adults, including teachers and school counsellors, listen and validate concerns while remaining interested and realistically hopeful.

Consider impact of family, culture and community

Climate change disproportionately affects those least responsible for it: families from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, people with mental illness, people living in poverty or unstable housing, and First Nations people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have cared for their ancestral lands for millennia without causing climate change, and have a cultural duty to protect Country. They may experience a deep sense of shame and loss of culture in addition to the climate distress impacting other students.

At the same time, there are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders who have been sharing wisdom and speaking about climate injustice. Building an understanding of the stories of these leaders can be particularly valuable for maintaining and developing realistic hope.

Offer investigation, counter misinformation

Companies profiting from the ongoing extraction of fossil fuels have waged a substantial campaign of advertising and misinformation to prevent or delay effective action on climate change.

Collage made by Year 7 Sydney student during a climate change workshop: ‘We are running out of time to take climate action’

As a result, families and community groups can differ in their attitudes towards climate change and its effects, putting teachers and students in a difficult position.

School staff can help students consider and access information, with awareness that the child or teenagers’ family or local community may not yet accept scientific information about climate change. This is something that teachers already excel at by teaching critical thinking across the curriculum.

Offer developmentally appropriate support

Providing a safe space for students to share how they feel is an important first step towards supporting them to cope with climate distress.

Visual art and storytelling provide powerful ways of engaging with emotions that can be hard to articulate. They can also help students focus on hope and gratitude or encourage them to share why they care about climate change with their broader community.

One of the authors of this article, Chloe Watfern, recently led a project with high school students in Sydney where they created hand-made letters of thanks, which they sent to leaders acting on climate change. Each student told their recipient why climate action matters to them, and visually expressed themselves using collage (see picture).

Students benefit from taking action that is personally meaningful. The Australian Youth Coalition on Climate and School Strikes 4 Climate are examples of youth-led, not-for-profit groups providing opportunities for such action. SeedMob is Australia’s first Indigenous youth-led climate network. More suggestions are available from the Australian Psychological Society and Regenerating Australia. For older students, teachers and adults can play the important role of allies and support them to take peaceful action without dictating the form it takes. This role is particularly important because many young people are disappointed and angry about the failure of older generations to prevent or address climate change.

When more is needed

Most distress about climate change is within the range of healthy responses and does not constitute a mental health disorder.

At times, however, students will also have a significant mental health disorder or experience such severe climate distress or inability to function that formal mental health assessment and treatment is needed.

If this is the case, teachers should refer the student to the wellbeing team at their school. These students will still need and benefit from school staff support while accessing additional mental health services.

The principles for distinguishing students who need further support are like those for other sources of distress, for example, if the student is having trouble functioning academically or socially; if the student is at risk of harming themselves or others; or if the student’s worries are out of touch with current climate science.

Show genuine leadership and action

Leaders taking meaningful and visible action in response to the serious and increasing impacts of climate change is an important way of relieving distress for students. Examples of leadership in schools include sustainability activities, like installing solar panels or accessing renewable energy, recycling, tree-planting and supporting opportunities for students to engage in meaningful action.

Chloe Watfern is research associate at the Black Dog Institute and Maridulu Budyari Gumal SPHERE (Sydney Partnership for Health Education Research and Enterprise).

Blanche Savage is a Clinical Psychologist with 15 years’ experience working in child and adolescent mental health.

Cybele Dey is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, co-chair, Doctors for the Environment Australia Mental Health working group and RANZCP NSW Climate Psychiatry Group, staff specialist, Sydney Children’s Hospital Network and conjoint lecturer at UNSW.