Mumbai-based Sujata Nayak, the mother of 6-year-old Parth, remembers being recently questioned by her son about what he can do to stop Mumbai from drowning and being submerged in the next 20-30 years. She was stumped, she says, and didn't know how to respond. Instead, she asked her son where he came across this information. "Apparently, he was researching the impact of pollution on the ozone layer and came across a YouTube video about how cities, including Mumbai, will be submerged eventually," says Nayak.
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A similar incident occurred in the Bhatia household where 11-year-old Kiara Bhatia asked her unsuspecting mother whether they would run out of water over the next few years. "I didn't have an answer to that and was flabbergasted to see that she seemed worried and scared at the same time," says Reena Bhatia, Kiara's mother.
Climate change, it turns out, isn't just scaring adults all over the world. Our children too are aware and educated about the impending doom that the planet will face due to climate change, leaving them worried, scared, anxious and helpless. A December 2021 research study published in the Lancet medical journal confirms as much. According to the study, children and youth across ten countries, including India, were either very worried or moderately worried about the impact of climate change on their lives. Moreover, many of the research respondents, including children, said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives and functioning; many reported negative thoughts about climate change.
Now termed as eco-anxiety, this condition, coupled with dissatisfaction with government responses, is widespread in children and young people in countries worldwide and impacts their daily functioning. Experts talk about managing this anxiety and what parents can do to channel it in their children positively.
Is eco-anxiety real?
Dr Sanjay Garg, a mental health specialist, Fortis Hospital Anandapur, Kolkata, says that eco-anxiety, though not a medical diagnosis, is being seen more and more frequently, especially in the young population. "With globalisation, media awareness and easy internet access, the youth are significantly more aware and conscious of the environmental effect on the earth and its future. The sense of loss, hopelessness, and anger due to climate change can thus have a significant effect on children's mental health," he explains.
Dr Meghna Singhal, who holds a PhD in clinical psychology from NIMHANS and is an internationally certified positive parenting coach, says that climate change can affect the entire developmental trajectory of a child. "Even before birth, acute environmental stressors such as earthquakes, floods, heatwaves, can traumatise the mother and the foetus, both physically and mentally. These can result in obstetric complications, including preterm birth. In early childhood, children are vulnerable to environmental stressors, and the resulting physical health problems can interact with and increase vulnerability for mental health issues. In adolescence too, adverse environmental events can compromise mental health resilience," he says.
Examining the linkage
"If you go to a hill station and you wake up to clear skies, your mental state is different as opposed to waking up to a smog-filled day in any metro city," says Dr Debmita Dutta, a Bengaluru-based parenting consultant. She further illustrates a picture of how, when the environment is affected, our mental health gets impacted. "We may choose to ignore what's going on in our external environment and choose to move on with our lives, but the impact is here to stay," adds Dr Dutta, pointing out that there are now contaminants present everywhere--in the air, food and water. "Before we know it, it will affect the energy levels in our body and affect our productivity, motivation and enthusiasm levels."
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The study throws light on an important issue, on which there has been surprisingly little research. The study offers evidence on how the effects of climate change place children at risk of mental health consequences, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, attachment disorders, and substance abuse. Of course, as Singhal points out, it is important to remember that a single climate event does not lead to mental health consequences. "Rather, it is the additive and cumulative effects of adverse environmental stressors that can compromise children's mental health," she clarifies.
Managing the anxiety
Dr Garg believes that managing eco-anxiety in youth requires multi-stakeholder input. "Governmental policies, societal responsibility and large corporations can play a major role in leading efforts for climate change. Visible and sustained initiatives are required to allay fears of eco-anxiety," he states.
On the other hand, Dr Dutta has a different point of view. According to her, using positive reinforcements to address the anxiety can help channel it for a better purpose. "Anxiety stems from the need to change one's circumstances. If we push our children to take action and change the existing scenario in even small ways, their anxiety will be managed better. We need to teach them to take small actions and not think that taking care of the environment is someone else's job." She says that cultivating a holistic perspective and teaching kids about the 'Power Of One' can make a huge difference. "They should see how one person can bring about change. Also, parents must remember that children are the agents of change and at no point should they absorb our helplessness. We should always empower them and tell them that they can change anything and everything. "
Proactive steps you can take as a parent
Dr Singhal believes that parents play an essential role in raising environmental crusaders children. Managing eco-anxiety entails taking proactive steps.
Recognise that it is a rational feeling to have
Eco-anxiety really happens because a person feels empathy and compassion for what they witness in the world.
Inculcate eco-friendly habits from an early age
For instance, teach your child not to waste water brushing teeth or insist on reusing and recycling items such as clothes, toys, etc.
Role-model environmental consciousness
Show them that you care too by being meticulous about segregating garbage, not wasting food, taking public transport, avoiding over-packaged products, etc.
Through books, documentaries, or real-life, show them how we depend on each other as people, as communities, and as countries. For example, if one person in a community draws too much groundwater, the others suffer. If people uphill pollute water, people downhill suffer. So, parents inculcate values like sharing and caring for others and no better place than home to do so.
Make eco-friendly choices yourself
Volunteer with causes you believe in and talk to others in your sphere of influence- friends, family, employers, community leaders- to educate them and encourage environmentally sustainable change. For example, could you promote your apartment complex to invest in rainwater harvesting? Could you segregate waste conscientiously? Could you consume more local produce?