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Should There be Support for Eco-Anxiety at Universities?

  • Opinion

By Lulu Goad, BA Arabic

2022 was the hottest year on record for Britain, achieving a daily maximum temperature of more than 40°C. Once the multiple heat waves had subsided, there were storms and heavy rain to follow, which led to the infamous sewage spills around England and Wales. Climate change was making itself known, and it was no surprise that people were feeling a bit s***; pun intended. 

“‘over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives’.”

Researchers have discussed the link between climate change and emotional well-being since 2007. But it wasn’t until 2017 that the American Psychological Association put a name to the ‘chronic fear of environmental doom’: eco-anxiety – otherwise known as ‘climate anxiety’ or ‘eco-distress’. Eco-anxiety can come as a result of both first and second-hand experiences, and with information at your fingertips, you don’t need to have been in Florida or Cuba during Hurricane Ian to endure the emotional effects. Although research from the Environment Agency suggests that if you did, in fact, experience the hurricane first-hand or even a storm in the UK, you’re ‘50% more likely to suffer from mental health problems, including stress and depression.’ Stress and depression are among a variety of symptoms that are associated with eco-anxiety. Others include trauma or PTSD, panic attacks, and feelings of guilt or helplessness, to name a few. And it’s the younger generations that are suffering from these effects the most. In a survey with participants aged from 16 to 25, ‘over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives.’ 

So why aren’t we hearing more about eco-anxiety from universities? If this issue is so prevalent among the target audience of higher education, why don’t we see eco-anxiety in student well-being support programs? 

Well, first of all, there is the issue of budget. As students, we saw the effects that Covid-19 had on our well-being and on well-being services. The entire health system in the UK suffered hugely. The fact that there is limited well-being funding comes as no surprise. But, on this basis, it seems illogical to forfeit eco-anxiety-related support and have to, in turn, face “hidden costs”; by hidden costs, I am referring to any unforeseen expenses that will result from perpetuated mental health issues at the hands of worsening climate conditions. And Eco-Anxiety support doesn’t need to cost a pretty penny. The paper ‘Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon’ suggests that one of the most supportive things an institution can do is to allow for students‘ ‘feelings and views [to be] heard, validated, respected, and acted upon.’ Taking it one step further, the initiative ‘Anxiety to Action’ uses group, parent and individual workshops, which are conducted to encourage movement towards positive action, identifying goals and challenging negative feelings. A similar group, ‘Force of Nature’, founded by climate activist Clover Hogan in 2019, advocates for young people to use their eco-anxiety for good by “mobilising mindsets”. Through their student programs and teacher training, Force of Nature has collaborated with the likes of King’s College London and the University of Oxford to support students through their experiences with eco-anxiety. 

However, a more productive alternative to addressing eco-anxiety head-on may be to invest in sustainable projects or work on mitigation solutions to climate change. In doing so, not only is the university more climate-conscious – first green flag – it can also reduce the effects of eco-anxiety by providing students with a sense of agency, knowing that they are part of a mindful community – second green flag. Take Keele University, for example; they have made a 25-year deal with ENGIE, a global energy and services group, ‘to develop a wind, solar and battery storage park to generate 50% of the university’s power,’ says Julie Tam from Universities UK. If SOAS were to invest in well-being to tackle eco-anxiety, there would be less of a budget for it to confront climate change, and like many other universities, SOAS does not have the capacity to have its cake and eat it. So, it seems that our universities should look to invest in the climate, to begin with, and perhaps, in turn, students may be relieved of their climate concern, for the time being anyway…

Whilst an acknowledgement of eco-anxiety would, I’m sure, go a long way for the students of SOAS, it is important that universities make some difficult budget trade-offs and invest in the climate in order to improve student well-being for the long term. In the words of Sir Anton Muscatelli, the Principal of the University of Glasgow, ‘we cannot achieve our goals at the expense of the environment.’ Renewable energy at SOAS? I’m a big fan.

Photo Caption: An image displaying the effect of eco-anxiety on many people (Credit: Getty Images).

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