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Over 70% of Bristol University students suffer from climate anxiety, new survey finds

The survey conducted by Epigram over the last month has revealed the impact of the climate emergency on the mental health of University of Bristol students.

By Billy Stockwell, Climate Correspondent and Louie Bell, Investigations Correspondent

The survey conducted by Epigram over the last month has revealed the impact of the climate emergency on the mental health of University of Bristol students.

Over 70% of students suffer from the condition of ‘climate anxiety’, a new survey of University of Bristol students has shown.

The little-studied mental health phenomenon of ‘climate anxiety’ is an umbrella term to describe a range of symptoms such as persistent low mood, depression or anxiety deriving from fear or awareness of environmental breakdown.

73% of almost 700 students surveyed self-identified as having suffered from symptoms of climate anxiety in the last year.

Those suffering from climate anxiety frequently report anxiety regarding plans for the future, with 82% of all respondents reporting that their optimism for the future had been negatively affected by their concerns about the climate crisis.

A further 56% said that it had affected their desire to have a family in the future, with 44% saying that their motivation to work towards their life goals had been negatively affected.

The results suggest that students think there is clear generational gap in attitudes to climate change, with over two-thirds of students saying that they think that the majority of the older generation fail to understand their concerns about the climate crisis.

73% of almost 700 students surveyed self-identified as having suffered from symptoms of climate anxiety in the last year

Caroline Hickman, a member of the Executive Committee of the Climate Psychology Alliance, highlighted how the anxiety over widespread inaction was the main driver of climate-related anxiety.

‘It is not the environmental degradation that causes the most distress.

‘It’s the denial, the disavow, the lies, the avoidance, the dismissal, the patronising attitudes of adults, governments and companies that say: don't worry about it.’

Over the last five years Hickman has studied children and young people all over the world, including Sweden, Nigeria, Brazil and The Maldives, looking at their emotional response towards the climate emergency.

She believes that the high levels of climate anxiety within the student population at Bristol University are, paradoxically, actually a positive sign.

She said: ‘I think everybody on the planet should be feeling climate anxiety, and if they're not, I'm wondering why not.

‘People look away or they shut themselves down emotionally, or they go to sleep or they use defences like denial or disavowal.’

Hickman argues that society should take young people’s feelings of anxiety more seriously, and support them by building psychological and emotional resilience.

However, she says that climate anxiety is a ‘mentally healthy response’ to the reality of the situation, and it is needed to spur the world into action.

The results from Epigram’s survey suggest that around 1 in 3 Bristol students polled have significantly changed their lifestyle, such as shopping habits and diet, in response to the climate crisis.

However, just as solving the climate crisis cannot rely on individual action alone, neither can solving climate anxiety, according to Hickman.

In response to the finding that around 37% of students believe that their mental health has been negatively affected due to their concerns about the climate crisis, Hickman criticises the view that climate anxiety is an ‘individualistic problem’.

‘In the Western medical model, mental health problems are treated in a similar way to physical health problems, as though they should be fixed.

‘Whereas if you look at the cause, if you look at the origin of this anxiety and depression, the origin does not lie in the individual.

‘This is a collective problem. It's a global problem. And the reason you're feeling distress, anxiety and depression is because you have empathy for yourself and for the environment and for others.’

Of all the students surveyed, 85% said they were worried that the climate crisis would affect them personally during their lifetime.

The results are striking as they come at a time clouded by the effects of another major global crisis - the coronavirus pandemic.

With 76% of students saying that the UK government's response to the pandemic has made them feel less confident about their plans to tackle the climate crisis, the link between these two crises is evident.

An even higher percentage of students - 86% - said they don’t trust the government to deal with the climate crisis.

Speaking in relation to the pandemic, Hickman states that ‘with coronavirus, you can have the fantasy that we will get beyond it. You cannot have that fantasy about the climate emergency. Even if we went to zero carbon emissions tomorrow - which we're not going to do - it would be too late.’

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The effects of climate anxiety can be particularly acute for those who have direct experience of the negative impacts of climatic change. 14% of respondents said that they and/or members of their family have already been personally affected by the climate crisis.

In addition, almost half of the students who responded to the survey felt that mental health and wellbeing services would fail to take their concerns about the climate crisis seriously.

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: ‘Climate change is a real and imminent problem, so it is perhaps unsurprising that our astute and engaged students are concerned about its effects.

‘We would strongly encourage anyone feeling anxious to contact our wellbeing services as soon as possible, where their concerns will always be treated seriously and with empathy.

‘We have a wide range of services available including our Student Wellbeing and Residential Life services; counselling, therapeutic groups and self-help resources; online support communities and several student-led, peer support groups.’

The University of Bristol became the first UK university to declare a climate emergency in 2019, asserting that it reaffirmed a “strong and positive commitment to action on climate change”. The University has also promised to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

However, Hickman believes that universities should be doing more, by building stronger connections with the wider community and being of service to their needs, ‘whether it's technological change, or social and psychological support to make these changes. We need to do all of it.’

Featured Graphic: Epigram / Alice Proctor

Have you experienced climate anxiety in the last year?