Spending time outdoors is often suggested by health professionals to promote good physical and mental health, especially in our recent times of isolation. A study from 2019 published by Nature Research suggests that only two hours of outdoor time per week has positive impacts on both the health and well-being.
Recently, however, individual’s relationship with the environment is changing, with over two-thirds of adults having felt a strong sense of anxiety when thinking about the current state of our climate. The fear that our elementary school teachers instilled in us years ago are coming to life. With record breaking temperatures, late rainy seasonsthreatening more deadly wildfires, and a predicted one million species to go extinct within the decade, eco-anxiety within adults is at an all-time high.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. This newfound anxiety is demonstrated through results of a recent survey conducted by the APA in February 2020, indicating that 56 per cent of adults in the U.S. believe that climate change is the most relevant social issue we face today.
How has this fear influenced people’s environmental behaviour? Fear of worsening the climate crisis has motivated the majority of American adults to recycle, properly insulate their homes, transition to more sustainable energy sources, and consume less. Although a good start, some individuals neglect their environmental responsibilities at the expense of those who suffer from severe eco-anxiety.
The same APA study suggests that 40 per cent of Americans have not or are unwilling to modify their behaviour to better the environment. What will it take for these individuals to take the climate crisis seriously? Many claim the change to a more sustainable lifestyle is simply unaffordable or too time consuming. Possibly, if the effects climate change hold on mental health are more widely discussed, people would be increasingly willing to make behaviour changes to lessen their contributions to the climate crisis.
Quickly accelerating weather changes in our environment can affect mental health in many capacities, with the APA stating that extreme weather conditions caused by climate change may lead to long term emotional trauma, PTSD, depression, and even substance abuse. Take, for example, the winter storm devastating the lives of Texans, leaving many without power, and the homeless to fend for themselves. Left freezing in their homes and neglected by their government, Texans will carry this emotional trauma for the rest of their lives, which may lead to deeper anxieties regarding future environmental disasters and the worsening of the climate crisis.
Eco-anxiety is taking over Generation Z as well. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a study in 2015, stating that children’s mental health is at risk with worsening environmental stability. Greta Thunberg’s 2018 environmental protests reminded us that it is time to take responsibility and make a change. But how much more can this generation take? With low living wages and increasingly competitive work culture already on our consciousness, how can we take the environmental crisis head on without further harming our mental health? People of our generation are pushing for change, and calling for government action in more environmental regulation, however, the responsibility to better our environment should not lay in the hands of a single generation.
Rising tension and anxieties can lead to other mental health crises, physical illnesses, and higher rates of crime and violence, suggesting that the hopelessness many feel when imagining a tree-less future is not an isolated event. In order to reduce eco-anxiety, the fear must be taken seriously, and discussed amongst communities while addressing other factors depleting our mental health. 2021 is our year to change. It is time to replenish our home, and in doing so, reduce the feeling of despair that many feel when thinking about the future of our planet.