With recent concerning climate news, notably the approval of the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska, it seems that the feeling of doom about the climate crisis is increasing. How much is this climate anxiety affecting our students? Eco-anxiety is spreading rapidly, especially among young people. It has been described as a “big looming anxiety over everyone’s heads,” by one of the respondents of a survey sent out to students. Last year, at the University of East Anglia, a mindfulness course was launched to offer students strategies to cope with eco-anxiety; is this something that we should be calling on our university to provide?
In a straw poll completed by students, over 77% of respondents said that worries about climate change are in some way affecting their life. 48.2% of all respondents said that it was impacting their academic studies. Considering that we study in one of the least climate vulnerable countries, these are striking figures. One of the main themes from the survey, which was expected, was that people are feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue. This is leading them to feel a lack of motivation towards their degrees, one commenting that studying seems “trivial and unimportant” in light of the wider issues. Another mentioned “feeling a lack of progress” and “powerless to make progress happen.”
There appears to be a pattern of students feeling pressure as we are often being deemed the “hope for the future.” This, alongside guilt associated with travel, paper notes and energy consumption required for obtaining a degree, can heighten feelings of eco-anxiety.
Interviewing a Biology and Earth Sciences student they provided a frightening insight into how eco-anxiety is affecting individuals in our community. Claire stated that her eco-anxiety can make her “feel helpless and not seen.” Particularly frustrated by Biden’s decision to approve the Willow Project, a feeling of betrayal by a president that she trusted, describing it as “my future he is changing without my consent.”
She feels her “eco-anxiety comes from a helpless feeling and the fact that others don’t seem to understand.” Frustration towards many of the world's current politicians who seem to continuously make false promises and not prioritise climate action. As a Biology and Earth Science student, Claire felt we have an overwhelming responsibility to leave the earth in a better place than we found it.
This burden has prevented her from considering paths to studying other STEM subjects like Computer Science or Medicine; and also feeling a want to drop out and leave university to try and make a change in the world. Studying as an undergraduate can feel frustrating to some, causing a feeling of uselessness. She also brought up important issues of climate injustice, with the most climate vulnerable countries being typically the nations who contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions, causing a further complexity to the issues surrounding eco-anxiety.
It should be mentioned that not everyone is experiencing eco-anxiety, and appears to be an insignificant stress in their life. While this is positive news that not all students here are feeling an intense experience of eco-anxiety, it is also a reminder that the impacts of climate change are hugely unequally distributed. It’s important to think about the mental health struggles of communities in the most climate vulnerable areas. The stress around climate change is hugely heightened in these areas, as it is livelihoods, homes, families and identities that are currently at risk. Post traumatic stress disorder is increasing in communities affected by extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and heat waves, which are being exacerbated by climate change . Since St Andrews is such an international university, it is important that there is support for individuals who are from, or linked to these climate vulnerable communities.
I believe it is important to recognise and acknowledge eco-anxiety as a contributor to some individual’s experience of anxiety as a mental health condition, but also as a fear felt by many others. It’s difficult to find a balance, obviously it is important that we as individuals care and act to save the planet, but we also need to preserve our mental wellbeing. What I think is important is to vocalise these feelings, open a conversation about our fears, and try and use this to prompt positive change. It is scary thinking of the power of big corporations and governments, but also remember that individuals do have some power and our actions and cares do matter.
Illustration: Calum Mayor