Prioritizing Mental Wellness in Climate Change Education

Climate change was named the number one public health risk of the 21st century, but until recently, mental wellness wasn’t considered a major part of the overall threat. Ignoring mental wellness leads to inaccurate measures of public health: a 2021 report indicates 75 percent of surveyed youth reported feeling anxious about the climate crisis — a phenomenon now commonly being referred to as “eco-anxiety.”

While eco-anxiety is not a clinical diagnosis, it is the term used to describe the feelings of being overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of the climate crisis. Our children are especially vulnerable to the physical and mental impacts of climate change. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that mental healing in children is delayed after a climate-fueled extreme weather event due to extended recovery times as disasters intensify in strength. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly reported in children who experience hurricanes, wildfires, and other traumatic weather events. The AAP is also concerned about the lifelong health impacts on children who endure these and other social stressors related to climate change, such as resource scarcity, displacement, and potentially increased violent conflict. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Young people, who are already navigating the arduous path of adolescence, have become the face of the climate movement. They’re now dealing with even more stress and anxiety while they juggle school, work, and social lives. Adults are also navigating the unprecedented impacts of the climate crisis and having to manage their own eco-anxiety while providing space for young people.  

Balancing Hope and Despair

Educational attainment is the most important factor in reducing vulnerability to climate disasters; however, American public schools are lacking a comprehensive climate change curriculum. In 2020, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) updated its national standards, including standards for climate change education. These standards have since been adopted by 20 states, while 26 other states have developed their own guidelines based on the NCSE framework. A handful of states still leave climate change education out of their curriculum entirely. Additionally, public school science teachers are allowing personal beliefs to impinge on students’ education by encouraging them to question scientific consensus. Instead of receiving science-based information, young people in these states are educated by the increasingly prevalent media-curated misinformation, inflammatory language, and doomsday rhetoric that they encounter outside the classroom.

Curriculum writers, science educators, and activist groups are working to create climate change curriculum for use in the classroom. The Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), a group formed by therapists around the globe who recognize eco-anxiety is a pervasive issue, suggests adults have a responsibility to find a balance between complacency and alarmism.

In an interview with Climate XChange, mental health specialist and CPA member, Jennifer Silverstein, suggested that before students are introduced to climate change as a crisis, they need to be in conditions that cultivate resilience. “We need to prepare them to receive climate crisis information. Very young children should be encouraged to discover movement and sensory activities that feel restorative, the natural way their body regulates,” says Silverstein. As students mature and become more aware of their feelings and reactions, these somatic movements become a recognized coping skill. By focusing on mental wellness in preparation for climate change education, our kids have a better capacity to cope with their emotional response to the crisis. 

Silverstein also says that elementary school-age children should learn about their environment in an age-appropriate way. For example, this age group is ready to learn about litter’s impact on ecosystems and the importance of reducing waste, not the hyperbolic, doomsday headlines we observe in the media. Students need to be given small doses of information with time to process. “You can only give kids so much information at once and expect them to integrate it,” explained Silverstein. 

Climate education should be followed by clear communication about mitigation and adaptation efforts that are underway. Focusing on collective action can empower students to take personal responsibility in a healthy, impactful way. This allows students to maintain a sense of control, to find that balance between complacency and alarmism. The AAP is calling on leadership at all levels to join a new public health movement, saying that a “failure to act on climate change is an act of injustice to children.” 

Silverstein’s ideal curriculum provides mental health care from day one. This includes providing wellness resources for educators who take on the psychological burdens of their students, also known as vicarious trauma. Fewer than half of U.S. teachers have taken a course on climate change, and Silverstein is concerned they could be triggered by teaching climate crisis lessons. “A middle school science teacher who is aware of the climate crisis and hasn’t taken care of their emotions could easily flood kids with data that frightens them,” Silverstein said. 

Policy Interventions Related to Mental Wellness

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Mental Health for Students Resources Act, and UNICEF is encouraging Americans to contact their senators and show support for the legislation. If passed by the Senate, the Act would provide grants at the local level that ensure “culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health care for students.” Schools could employ more mental health professionals, delivering positive mental health services and creating new opportunities for students and families in need. Introduced by Congresswoman Grace Napolatino of El Monte, California, the provisions have already been implemented across California’s District 32. 

California students, who are experiencing chronic trauma after successive, record-setting wildfire seasons and the devastating pandemic, are recovering from collective post-traumatic stress. This puts teachers in the role of trauma therapists, a role they are not qualified for nor should they be expected to. The state has permitted local school districts to use CARES Act funds to bolster mental health support in their schools. For some, this means hiring additional school social workers to work with the students and also provide teachers with the skills needed to manage their students’ trauma. 

Silverstein outlined the components of a comprehensive approach to climate change education, which she believes inspires hope:

  • Ongoing mental health care for students and educators
  • Small doses of age-appropriate information
  • Reflection on what action is being taken by various actors, including students
  • Participation in a community action project

Adding to the complexity for parents and teachers is the novelty of raising kids through the climate crisis. Through her practice of focusing on regenerative relationships, Silverstein reflects: “The world is made up of incredibly complex systems that are more than just the sum of their parts, and can transform in ways you would never see when you’re just looking at the parts. We have potential in ways we haven’t imagined yet. We are raising children who are capable of reaching their potential, in spite of and through these inevitable problems.” 

Resources and Organizations to Support and Empower Young People

The Climate Reality Project, Orange County, CA chapter: The Youth Action Team (YAT) has developed lessons for use with elementary and middle school students on the topics of biodiversity, food waste, and plastics. This program allows high school students to be an active part of educating younger kids, keeping them involved in the climate movement by educating the next generation. Chapter co-chair Linda Kraemer says, “This program is helpful because it is action-oriented […] and the curriculum is based on California Science Standards, so it’s a win-win.” This chapter is a subsection of The Climate Reality Project, an organization with members around the globe. 

Our Climate: Become a fellow or a field representative. This organization mobilizes student activists for work across five states and the District of Columbia. 

Climate Psychology Alliance: Resources for Parents, Teachers, and Carers

If You Know Someone in Crisis

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.

Featured Image: Max Pixel