How to support students with climate anxiety

Teacher sitting down with student

If your students are feeling constantly stressed, fearful, hopeless, sad or frustrated about climate change and its impacts, they might be experiencing climate anxiety. 

Learn more about what climate anxiety is, signs to look out for, why it’s on the rise, and practical strategies you can use to help students manage their feelings both in and out of the classroom. 

What is climate anxiety?

‘Climate anxiety’, sometimes called ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘eco-distress’, is the term used to describe the feelings people have when they hear bad news about climate change and its impacts. 

They might feel anxious, stressed, fearful, angry or overwhelmed. All these feelings are completely valid, as it’s an issue that’s affecting ecosystems, communities and people’s livelihoods right around the world.  

While everyone (and every student) experiences climate anxiety differently, it can have significant impacts on their day-to-day life, behaviour, mental health and wellbeing.

What causes climate anxiety?

Climate anxiety has been on the rise in recent years, especially among young people. In fact, research from the Orygen Institute found that more than 3 in 4 (76%) young people aged 16–25 are concerned about climate change, and that 2 in 3 (67%) said climate concerns are having a negative impact on their mental health. 

Another report from Mission Australia that surveyed young Australians aged 15–19 found that over half (51%) identified ‘the environment’ as one of the most important issues in Australia today.

There’s no single reason why climate anxiety is becoming more common. Rather, it’s more likely a mix of reasons, such as:

  • The ever-growing scale and threat of climate change. Our knowledge of climate change and its impacts continues to evolve. And, with the threat that climate change poses, it’s no surprise that it can cause people to feel anxious about our ecosystems, communities and future generations.

  • Increased awareness of climate change. While there are many positive aspects to our increased awareness of climate change, for some it can result in feelings of anxiety, stress, fear or depression.

  • More coverage in the media. Constant exposure to distressing images, videos, statistics and predictions of climate change–related weather events can amplify feelings of anxiety and distress. 

  • Lack of action by those in power. Seeing a lack of meaningful action being taken by governments, institutions and corporations can lead to feelings of despair and frustration. 

  • Having real skin in the game. Young people are the ones who, in the future, are most likely to be impacted by the long-term effects of climate change. 

  • The likelihood of exacerbating inequality. Current estimates show that the effects of climate change will worsen existing inequalities for marginalised groups (including First Nations people, women, migrants, people with disability, and rural and remote communities).

Signs your students might be struggling with climate anxiety

Whether it’s during classroom discussions and activities, or out in the school yard, or in more informal chats you’re having, you might be picking up on signs that students are struggling with climate anxiety. 

It could be related to their mood, how they’re behaving, their day-to-day functioning or their mental health in general. While climate anxiety looks different for everyone, some common signs include:

  • sadness, grief or a sense of loss

  • a sense of helplessness or hopelessness

  • anger, frustration or irritability

  • pessimism or numbness

  • shame or guilt

  • fear about the future

  • anxiety or depression

  • increased stress and worry

  • difficulty concentrating on schoolwork or tasks

  • decreased motivation or enthusiasm for learning

  • an obsession with natural disasters

  • avoidance of discussions or assignments related to climate issues

  • refusal to go to school

  • withdrawal from social interactions or extracurricular activities

  • changes in sleeping patterns

  • decreased self-esteem and self-confidence.

While climate anxiety itself isn’t a formal mental health diagnosis, some students who experience it might also have mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. 

It’s also important to note that while the effects of climate anxiety can have an impact on a student’s mental health, it doesn't mean they have a mental health condition. But if you’re concerned about a student, you could encourage them to see a school counsellor or a GP.

Strategies for helping students with climate anxiety

Weave wellbeing ideas and strategies into the classroom

By integrating mental health and wellbeing education into the curriculum, you can provide students with valuable coping strategies for managing their climate anxiety. For example, you could educate students about:

  • the psychological and emotional impacts of climate change

  • positive coping strategies for managing stress and anxiety, such as mindfulness, healthy lifestyle habits, relaxation exercises and connecting with nature

  • building resilience through encouraging activities that promote self-care, self-awareness and emotional regulation.

Here are some ReachOut Schools lessons to get you started:

In the Australian Curriculum’s Health and Physical Education Curriculum, try focusing on content descriptions such as AC9HP8P02 (Years 7–8) and AC9HP10P02 (Years 9–10) in activities. These can help you to frame climate anxiety as a ‘change’ that students need strategies to manage and respond to. 

You could also focus on AC9HP8P06 (Years 7–8) and AC9HP10P06 (Years 9–10) as a way of supporting students to identify strategies for managing their emotions in a range of different situations.

You could also check out ABC Education, Cool Australia and Curious Climate Schools for more classroom resources related to climate change and climate anxiety.

Boost your own confidence

Tackling your students’ climate anxiety can feel like a delicate balancing act between answering their tough questions, providing them with age-appropriate information, inspiring hope and building their resilience – which can be even harder to do if you lack confidence in your knowledge or in yourself. 

This is where you can do your own homework to learn more about the issues that are of concern to your students. Here are some resources to check out:

It can also be worth talking to your school about any available professional development workshops or courses around climate literacy, social and emotional learning (SEL), culturally responsive teaching, mindfulness and wellbeing.

Create a safe and supportive environment

Climate change and climate anxiety can be difficult topics to talk about. It’s likely that your students will have a range of emotions around the issue (even if these don’t align with your own) and they may not be totally forthcoming about how they're feeling. It’s important not to dismiss their concerns. In fact, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) has found that this can further impact someone’s mental wellbeing.

Rather, create spaces where students feel safe to express their hopes, fears, feelings, opinions and passions, and to feel validated and heard. Building supportive spaces like this, whether in the classroom, student-led groups, or simply in the conversations you’re having, will help students to feel less isolated and provide you with more opportunities to support them.

Encourage positive action

The APS also found that supporting young people to act on their climate concerns and anxieties can boost their sense of resilience, self-confidence and hope for the future. 

Beyond the classroom, there are plenty of ways for teachers and schools to promote positive action. For example, you could:

  • encourage students to get involved in initiatives and activities such as Schools Tree Day, Clean Up Australia Day, Earth Hour and National Recycling Week

  • support student-led projects and initiatives, such as composting programs, worm farms, waste-free events, climate action workshops, awareness campaigns, community gardens or school ‘green teams’

  • partner with local environmental organisations, community groups and experts that can offer opportunities for hands-on learning, engagement and collaborative projects

  • encourage students to join organisations such as Seed Mob, AYCC and the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN), which organise campaigns and volunteering opportunities.

Connect students with support services

If your students are facing significant stress or mental health challenges, work with them to seek support from school counsellors or other relevant professionals. If you need advice and help in this, just have a chat with your school’s wellbeing or guidance team.

You could also share with students relevant online counselling and treatment services, mental health websites and online mental health communities and forums, including the ReachOut Online Community, where they can chat anonymously with other young people.

Helpful ReachOut resources you can share

For students

For parents and carers

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