Climate Change & Mental Health – Inside the mind of the younger generation

By Arwa Hany

During my one hour commute each day to my university, I am surrounded by heavy traffic that pollutes the air with car exhaust. I vividly experience a sharp rise in temperature, as opposed to last year. I live in Cairo and my car’s air conditioning can’t seem to be enough anymore. In this hour, my thoughts always drift to consequences of our actions or inactions in this case.

In the United Nations Climate Action Summit held on September, 2019, Secretary General António Guterres described climate change as the defining issue of our time, and the Australian Medical Association declared climate change as a health emergency, joining both the American Medical Association and the British Medical Association.

I find myself in need to express my frustration at the injustices that we have caused to our environment, but I always come short. This is because climate change is not a conversation starter!

For 6 million years, we have inhabited planet Earth, we have evolved, developed, created civilization and became the version of today: humans who lost touch with nature and broke the symbiotic relationship we previously had. We are now the conquerors of the planet but this is not always positive.   

The red alerts are ringing, and time is ticking. We are at an emergency level of this crisis, and my generation is living through it all, and will grow to live in the catastrophes that come afterwards. We are aware, some of us empowered, some of us lost hope.

We are exhausted from not being heard, from suffering abuses from people with power.

Most importantly, we are drained from the inaction we see and from anticipating the challenges we might face in future to the point of mental exhaustion. Each day, we are bombarded by posts and news  portraying the impact of climate change, Wildfires spanning the world, From Australia to Algeria and the US. Droughts affecting farming, to the point where Madagascar is on the brink of a climate induced famine, the first reported of its kind.

Lives are lost, the earth is mourning, People are losing their homes with an average of more than 20 million people being displaced because of weather-related events, they are losing their personal or cultural identity due to climate induced migration. With each scroll, there is a constant deep sense of loss. From where did this state of mind originate ? That can be explained through many theories linking mental health with climate change.  

The  alarming change in climate usually brings thoughts of environmental impact and physical health concerns and neglects how this change also affects people’s mental health on many levels. 

It has been widely addressed in the literature, the positive association between climate induced weather events, and mental health impact including sleep disorders, stress, anxiety, depression, and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation. However little data is available on the rising awareness on climate change that can cause mental and emotional consequences. 

Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis claims that, ‘’as a consequence of evolution, humans have an innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.’’ We are wired to connect with nature, and derive psychological and well-being benefits from this affiliation. The disruptions caused by climate change affect our connection with nature, resulting in a feeling of loss. This triggers emotional distress and affects our mental health. From this notion, several terms have been introduced to portray the emotional response to the climate crisis, including Eco Anxiety (Anxiety experienced in response to ecological crisis or out of concern of ones the future), Solastalgia (distress caused by the painful ‘lived experience’ of environmental destruction)  and Eco Grief Phenomena (grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems and meaning-ful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change).

Credits: Joshua Fuller/unsplash

From another lens, emotional responses to climate change can affect the action we take on this crisis. Experienced emotions – in relation to climate change-  such as anger, anxiety and depression can energize or inhibit an action. Through this notion, the concept of Eco Emotions was born and the resulting consequence. Eco-depression inhibits climate action, Eco-anxiety motivates active avoidance and Eco-anger promotes climate action manifested in the protest and movements we are witnessing today.

It is a vicious cycle, where destruction of the environment causes a different array of emotions that can either trigger or inhibit the action we take to combat climate change, more inhibition would lead to more destruction and hence more emotions and greater impact on our mental health. 

Our climate and our environment are dramatically changing. However, we have the opportunity to mitigate the mental health impacts of climate change through collective action at individual and community levels.  At the more broadly national and global levels, it is vital to enhance our understanding of the emotional and psychological dimensions of climate change impacts not only for the psychological well being but also for sustaining the momentum toward climate action. The youth are ready to take action!

About the Author: Arwa Hany is a  final year medical student in Cairo university, with a deep passion for Global Health and Health diplomacy. She has 5 years’ experience in working with Youth-led and Civil Society organization. Previously holding Various positions within the International Federation of Medical Students’ Association (IFMSA), Global Health workforce Network-Youth Hub (GHWN-Youth Hub) and Sustainable development solutions network (SDSN-Youth). Currently, she is an intern at Women Leaders for Planetary Health working one step at time in advocating for a more sustainable, healthier planet and IFMSA Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean region elect (21/22).

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