You might not have heard the term eco-anxiety before, but you’ve more than likely seen the effects of it. Eco-anxiety has actually been around for some time, but it’s only quite recently that we’ve started talking more about it. Understanding what eco-anxiety is and how serious and prevalent it can be can help us more effectively support the children and young people affected by it.
What is eco-anxiety?
Eco-anxiety describes a specific type of anxiety where somebody feels distressed or frightened about climate change. Of course, everybody experiences a degree of anxiety from time to time, but when it impacts on day to day life, it can become overwhelming and quite serious. And it’s the same with eco-anxiety. It might be something that your child is worrying about at night, causing them to lose out on sleep. Or perhaps it is distracting them during the day, taking their focus away from the things that make them happy or that help them to learn and grow.
While we have been discussing climate change for some time, we need to acknowledge that the level of information – much of it frightening – received by our children can be all consuming. Whether they’re seeing it on TV, in newspapers or on social media, there are many doom and gloom scenarios related to climate change that are, frankly, terrifying.
The problem, however, is very real. So how do we maintain the conversation about climate change to make the future brighter for our young people, without negatively impacting on their wellbeing in the present?
The NHSG approach
Because sustainability is a topic that is threaded through almost everything we do – from the curriculum to how we dispose of litter or the food that we eat at lunchtime – it’s important that we embed these messages from a very early age. However, we don’t want pupils to feel scared every time we bring up the subject – which is inevitably what can happen if they feel bombarded by relentless images of polar bears losing their homes or rainforests burning down.
So, instead of picturing what will happen if we carry on as we are, we try to explore the more positive effects of activism. This might include how beautiful and fulfilling the world will be if we plant more trees, recycle and save energy.
Of course, we can’t shy away from the facts, especially when it comes to topics that are covered in the curriculum. For example, in Geography, pupils might learn about Brazil and deforestation – which of course can be hugely concerning. However, rather than skirt around this, we try to normalise the conversation, as well as making sure that we follow it up with a solutions-focused lesson that enables pupils to feel empowered and able to play a part in protecting the planet.
For our younger pupils, we also ensure that they are able to see how these solutions fit into daily life in school, so they are supported in making those connections between what they are learning about in their lessons, and what they are already doing on a day to day basis (for example, using recycling stations in classrooms, or using iPads instead of paper).
What drives eco-anxiety?
In addition to the overwhelm of information received, one of the biggest causes of eco anxiety is this idea of relentless sacrifice i.e. to make a difference you have to stop this or that. Sometimes these sacrifices can seem to big and daunting. For example, giving up meat or giving up riding in the car. This is why the onus needs to be on the sustainable lifestyle changes individuals can make that will make a positive difference. We have meat-free Mondays at school – it’s not about encouraging everyone to become vegan, but about showing how just a small change to your diet on one day of the week can help the environment.
We also know that eco anxiety is fear of the unknown. Children these days are so much more apprehensive about being outside – many simply don’t go out and play and spend time amongst nature. That’s why we are lucky to have the NHSG forest school for our early years pupils, and challenges like our ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ initiative that encourages children to spend some time outdoors doing something they wouldn’t normally do such as camping or hiking with the family.
Finally, anxiety can be borne of feelings of hopelessness. Many girls have told us that they are weighed down by this feeling of pointlessness – what difference can they, as an individual, make to this huge global problem. This is why we teach our pupils about the ripple effect – how that actions of one person can ripple out to inspire others, building on and amplifying the impact they are making.
The younger generation are used to living a more sustainable life so they are well-placed to make good choices, but we have to facilitate the opportunities for them to do so. We also need to talk about eco-anxiety – so that girls who are experiencing it don’t feel alone in it. This isn’t something that will go away any time soon, but if we make a concerted effort to support our pupils at home and at school by looking at solutions-focused approaches to learning about climate change, and empowering them to make a small difference both directly and as a result of the ripple effect, we will be contributing to their wellbeing both now and in the future.
By Mrs Abi Shaw, Junior School Teacher and Junior School Sustainability Coordinator