Climate Change and Mental Health Awareness

Climate Change and Mental Health Awareness

Greta was 8 years old when she first heard about climate change. She wondered why so little was being done to combat a human-made problem.  Why would her mother continue to fly when air travel causes high amounts of carbon dioxide?  Why did her father continue to eat meat?  By the time she was 11, Greta had become so desperate and depressed, she stopped talking and eating - losing twenty-two pounds.  What can a child do when the science about climate change does not influence the grown-ups? Aren’t the grown-ups supposed to be taking care of the world?

Climate change is a yoke our children bear.

As carbon dioxide rises in our atmosphere, there will be disruptions to everyone, including our schools. Human impact on the planet is being labeled the Anthropocene (“man”, “new”) because human-kind has caused extinctions, pollution, and changes in the atmosphere. Extreme climate events have been linked to many mental health issues ranging from mild stress to serious issues including suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress, and depression.

Besides direct impact from climate events, other emotional and psychological stressors are caused by communications about climate change. For some, climate change is thought to be a far-off phenomenon with little impact.  For others, like Greta, climate change is so overwhelming, they either fall into despair, denial, or avoidance.  Neither coping behavior is helpful, since lack of understanding leads to continuing actions that worsen climate change.  No wonder we feel overwhelmed and depressed.  In fact, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes that climate change poses a public health threat.

What can we do as educators? Are we going to give up ourselves, fall into the climate doomism, and drown in the hopelessness?  Of course not!  Educators have always been on the frontline, helping and crafting a better world.

We can make a difference for our students, our communities, and our planet.

While there is never a silver bullet to a crisis, there are techniques that can be useful to avoid danger and panic.  There is an old rule for scuba diving emergencies - Stop, Breathe, Think, Connect, Act.  This diving rule can be applied to help overcome any emergency, including climate change and the accompanying mental health burden. Our first step should be teaching our students these steps to confront an emergency.

STOP - When there is an emergency, we must first stop and avoid worsening the situation.  We should teach our children ways to stop contributing to climate change. NASA’s website climate kids suggests activities for reducing carbon footprints, saving water, and choosing a “green” career. Helping students stop climate change is the first step to improving their mental health.

BREATHE - In a diving emergency, relaxed breathing is very important to avoid using up all your air supply. One way we can contribute to breathing is planting trees! Trees are a major part of the Earth’s lungs and help to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by using CO2 to make leaves, trunks, and roots.  OneTreePlanted.org has resources for teachers to teach and plant trees on your school grounds.

THINK -  Now that your student’s have learned how to help STOP global warming and how to BREATHE, we can encourage our students to think.  The National Academy for Engineering has developed a list of 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering, First Nations Health Authority has defined a vision for Health and Wellness, and the United Nations has stated 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Use these resources in your classroom to challenge your students to come up with solutions.

CONNECT - In a diving emergency, the divers must connect with each other so they can cooperate.  As educators, we need to help our children feel connected to nature and the planet.   Take your students outside to let them explore and see the trees, bugs, sky, and water. Walk your school grounds and have them look for ways the school may impact climate change.  Connections to nature will help your children see that what happens in their community impacts the world.

ACT - Finally, after students have had a chance to stop, breathe, think, and connect, the most important part in an emergency is to act! Investigate the GreenRibbonSchool program which encourages and rewards schools that reduce environmental impact to improve the health and wellness of school community.  Student-led projects include reducing waste in cafeterias, planting rain gardens, meadows, and trees on school grounds (instead of costly lawns), completing trash clean-ups, and promoting greening of schools to their local government.  An emergency can only be solved if we act, so this step is the most important in the struggle to combat climate change and provide positive mental health environments for our children.

Greta’s family used stop, breathe, think, connect, act.  First, Greta’s mother stopped flying and the family went vegan. They breathed and found Greta had mental health challenges including depression, OCD, Asperger syndrome, and selective mutism.  Greta was encouraged by her family’s lifestyle change and began to think and connect with fellow students, teachers, and environmentalists. She acted by conducting a climate strike in August 2018 where she protested climate inaction at the steps of the Swedish government instead of attending school. Her climate strike grew through social media, and she gained international notoriety.  Her face has become the cry from the youth - stating “our house is on fire!”.  Greta Thornberg has traveled all over the world (via carbon-zero modes of transportation), talked to politicians and news outlets and was named Time’s person of the Year in October 2019.

Is there a Greta in your classroom?  Our children are suffering as they worry about a changing climate where they feel the grown-ups are letting them down.  Climate change is indeed going to have an impact on our collective mental health with continued severe weather events, forest fires, and floods as well as political disputes.  But we can calmly combat this emergency and help our students by focusing on good crisis management : STOP, BREATHE, THINK, CONNECT, and ACT!

Colleen Epler-Ruths is the STEM education consultant at the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit. Prior to her work there, she has over 20 years of experience in the science classroom where she taught physics, chemistry, and computer science.  Her Ph.D. dissertation was regarding spatial thinking’s impact on STEM learning.  She is a Penn State master gardener, Ambassador for AAPT STEP Up for physics and a Fulbright Global educator.  In addition, Colleen is an outdoor enthusiast, beekeeper, and avid traveler.




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