Author: Dr Renee Cachia, PhD (Psychologist)
I recently wrote an article ‘Transitioning from Anxiety and Overwhelm to Action’ reflecting upon the statistics published by the Australian Psychological Society (APS) report titled, ‘Young People’s Voices in The Climate Crisis’. Their review of recent literature and qualitative reports among young people revealed some alarming statistics, with 95% of Australian youth concerned that climate change is a serious problem; 4 in 5 youth are anxious about climate change and are concerned that climate change will reduce the quality of their life in the future, 1 in 6 reported losing sleep due to anxiety about climate change, and 3 in 4 feel that their opinions and concerns are not being taken seriously.
Given the magnitude of the impact of climate change on the mental health and psychological wellbeing of young Australians, the APS have stepped in to advocate for the government to declare a climate emergency. The recent APS report is a call to leadership on this issue, as taking action may play a pivotal role in addressing an unfair anxiety that is currently felt by many young Australians, at a time when mental health statistics are already reaching record highs. The APS were recently praised for their climate-related advocacy during Psych Week as they joined the leaders of 43 psychological associations at the first International Summit on Psychology and Global Health: A Leader in Climate Action in Lisbon last week.
Australian psychological representatives, alongside those of 43 other countries, including the Canadian and American Psychological Association, several European, Asian, Central and South American Psychological Associations, signed a referendum citing the “overwhelming agreement among climate scientists that climate change poses a serious global threat, is occurring faster than previously anticipated, and is contributed to by human behaviour.” In her recent public announcement, the Chief Executive Officer of the APS, Frances Mirabelli, shared the words of the President of Portugal’s Psychological Society, Mr Macelo Rebelo de Sousa, who praised psychologists for taking on the challenge of addressing climate change.
He said, “You chose the right subject because it’s a global subject … We must have a global response to it. There is not a single country, not even a superpower that can address alone this issue.” Based on the draft resolution, there appears to be a general consensus that a wide range of global leaders across sectors are required, including those in governments, academia, businesses, and education leaders. Environmental policies should include clear and accurate communication, actionable steps for appropriate mitigation, sustainable prevention and strategies to adapt to the current climate concerns. Such action is not only the right thing to do morally, but ethically, the public have a right to being fully, and accurately informed.
Climate change, environmental angst, eco-anxiety and ecological grief, are headlining global news, particularly since the September strikes that were primarily led by youth. However, the impact is, and will likely continue to be an increasingly large mental health concern for many other populations and minority groups, as well as youth. The draft resolution also acknowledges the disproportionate impact that has already been observed across vulnerable groups of people with fewer resources and lower incomes, from rural communities, to people of colour, women, children, older adults, and of course, individuals with disabilities. Climate change related events and natural disasters are a psychological concern, that can result in acute and/or major chronic adverse mental health outcomes, including but not limited to; stress, trauma, shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as anxiety and depression.
The global advocacy of psychologists aims to increase access to eco-education and psychoeducation simultaneously. In addition, the ongoing training of mental health providers to implement climate-related therapeutic supports, as well as helpful resources that can increase public optimism, foster behaviour change, cultivate active coping, resilience, social coherence and connectedness is encouraged. Access to financial aid and funding to support local and vulnerable groups that are affected at present, and those who will be in the future, is asked of our leaders. Of the 43 global associations in agreement, some have governments that are actively and positively working towards meeting the sustainable actions and solutions outlined in the United Nations (UN) Paris Climate Agreement, albeit others, such as Australia, are not currently taking sufficient action in part due to ongoing reliance on fossil fuels. To understand this further, refer to the ‘Brown to Green’ report; an evaluation of the world’s most advanced economies – also known as G20 countries – compiled by 14 international research institute teams.
In addition to the psychological advocacy, other notable health and medical experts have warned on the health effects and risks of unaddressed climate change following the recent unprecedented NSW bushfires, raising issues from air-pollution to respiratory risks. An article published in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “Australian researchers from the international consortium of 120 experts from 35 institutions urged the government to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.” To learn more about the proposed health risks, refer to the recently published 2019 peer-reviewed report titled ‘The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: Ensuring that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate’. Ultimately, there needs to be an immediate shift towards a more sustainable nation and globe, starting with improved environmental policies from government and other leaders. The coming together of courageous experts is already creating momentum of change through power in numbers, bringing great hope that we will continue to take positive steps in the right direction.
The importance of leadership, for young people, and for the public at large is highly necessary to improve individual and collective wellbeing, as well as to enhance social cohesiveness, interpersonal and intergroup social connection. It only takes eye-balling social media channels to see the divides within the “call-out culture”, recently addressed by President Barack Obama. This call-out culture, and division between cohesiveness is reflected in the finger pointing of unsustainable behaviours, to those who eat a certain diet, to those who drive, to those who fly, to those who don’t have access to green energy, to those who run a business that requires fossil fuels to operate, and the list goes on. These social issues are evident, in my opinion, due to a lack of solid and consistent leadership in addressing climate change. These social issues may defuse and diminish when the community starts to feel more optimistic about our collective care and pro-environmental action.
Positive environmental behaviours were reported to improve psychological wellbeing associated with climate related anxiety among youth, likely due the alignment of core values and behaviours. Although many people report feelings of overwhelm when it comes to taking individual actions, engaging on a personal, family, and community level has been reported to actively help such symptoms. The APS recently outlined a number of recommendations for community members, including allied health professionals, educators and parents to implement positive and adaptive strategies to mindfully guide children and youth to be proud to partake, and be a part of the change. I, for one, am incredibly proud to be a psychologist based on the advocacy outlined in this report, and believe that we can continue to find power with the coming together of local communities, and global associations to meet one common goal; to improve the sustainability of the planet for the wellbeing and vitality of future generations.