‘Climate anxiety’ has gained increasing traction in the media, but the relationship between climate change and mental health is a relatively new study, especially in higher education. According to a new report from Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, the impact of the climate crisis on students’ mental health and wellbeing is significant.
The October 2023 report reveals that from the sample of students surveyed, 71 percent are quite or very concerned about climate change, while 90 percent say it impacts their mental health and wellbeing in the preceding four weeks.
This is unsurprising, given the urgency to find solutions across every discipline to mitigate the impacts of climate change on both the environment and humanity.
Jade Mayum studies environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, which is ranked second in the QS World University Rankings: Sustainability 2024. Alongside her studies, Mayum works for the university’s Student Environmental Resource Centre on the Nature Education and Wellbeing Together programme.
When asked if she feels the pressure to shape the world and have an impact on the climate crisis, Mayum says: “Definitely. In class, I learn about many problems facing the world and the further threat we face if more action isn’t taken and it can feel overwhelming. I often wonder how I can fix it all.”
There is collective anxiety among her peers to figure out how to make an impact while trying to succeed in their modules and assignments, according to Mayum. “None of us want to leave and have wasted the opportunity we had at university, so there is a definite pressure to solve every problem we can. It’s impossible, really.”
A strong desire to make a difference
In the Student Minds report, students widely expressed a desire to make a positive contribution to tackling climate change but often felt like they didn’t know where to start.
“We can no longer ignore that climate change is happening and we can’t ignore the impacts it’s having on mental health either,” says Jenny Smith, policy manager for Student Minds and author of the report. “It’s understandable and very normal to have an emotional reaction to what is ultimately an existential threat to humanity.
“The earlier we deal with it, the better, but it’s about how we do that safely in an emotional and psychological sense. How do we make students feel encouraged and hopeful about the positive impact they can have? How do we provide them with skills and tactics to be able to make a difference as well as supporting them to cope with the negative feelings associated with climate change?”
Data from the QS International Student Survey 2023, which captures the motivations and expectations of 116,000 students across 194 countries, illustrates that prospective students are increasingly looking at universities’ sustainability and social justice efforts in their decision-making.
Now that students are looking to universities for sustainable leadership, the question is how universities are helping students hold onto their ambitions and feel inspired while the climate crisis continues to have a negative impact on their mental health.
Beyond education, students need direction in how to make change
Matthew Lawson is the Senior SRS Learning, Teaching and Reporting Manager in the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability (SRS) at the University of Edinburgh, which was ranked 15th in the QS World University Rankings: Sustainability 2024.
Lawson is responsible for embedding sustainability and social justice into the academic curriculum and student experience, which includes all undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.
“We understand that every student will be impacted by climate change and the wider environmental crises we face,” Lawson says. “We also know there is a need for stronger professional development that not only helps students to understand the issues facing our world but helps them to see where they can take action.”
For Lawson, the key to supporting students in managing their studies and mental health is developing resilience. “Students and graduates have the power to shape global politics as they take their skills into their respective fields and into leadership positions, even influencing policy,” he says.
“We must inspire students and give them hope in a rapidly changing world with various challenges. From giving students the opportunity to talk about how the climate crisis is impacting their feelings to giving them opportunities to fail forward and develop competencies that might not always work out, but in the safe space of a university.”
The power of student-led organisations
At Uppsala University in Sweden, ranked 11th place in the QS World University Rankings: Sustainability 2024, the Centre for Environment and Development Studies enables students to request courses on topics in the field of environment, development and sustainability that transcend what is available in the curriculum.
It is an interdisciplinary student-initiated hub for education which director, Mikael Höök, says is increasingly popular. “There has been a definite increase in students wanting to learn about topics like climate psychology, food production and climate change leadership,” he says.
“The centre has created a strong atmosphere for fostering and creating longer-term engagement in the climate crisis and environmental issues. We have students who take one of our courses and come back to work as a course coordinator with us. We’ve had students work with us at the centre before graduating to work in a sustainability division within the government or in industry.
“It’s important to actively support students in making change and student-driven education is a strong chord in providing that support – enabling students to decide what is important, work with others across various disciplines and engage in tangible change with local communities,” says Höök.
In fact, according to the Student Minds report, 66 percent believe that universities should work with student leaders and student unions to run more student-led sustainability initiatives around the climate crisis.
Jacqueline Canchola-Martinez studies conservation and resource studies with geography at UC Berkeley, working alongside Mayum in the Student Environmental Resource Centre (SERC). Canchola-Martinez is from the Central Valley in California, where her community is already feeling the effects of environmental injustice.
Student-led groups have provided Canchola-Martinez with a community of people who care about the climate as much as she does. “Organisations like SERC and the Students of Color Environmental Collective that I’m part of make me feel supported,” she says. “I feel surrounded by people who understand environmental justice and have a mutual understanding of the urgency we face.”
“It helps me to see that it’s not all doom and gloom. There are people actively looking for solutions and it makes me feel like I’m a part of the solution.”
Do student health services have a role to play in supporting climate anxiety?
At Uppsala University, the student health service is prepared to support students with anxiety and depression that comes from a range of lived experiences, whether it’s climate change, financial anxiety or other anxieties.
The university recently offered a lecture by a climate psychologist who spoke on the impact of climate anxiety and how to deal with it. Ulrika Svalfors, Head of Student Health Services at Uppsala University, says: “Students do mention climate concerns in conversation with the health service, but climate anxiety doesn’t seem to make students lose their ability to mentalise.
“Instead, they seem to be able to transform their climate anxiety into action, something that does not happen to the same extent when it comes to other types of anxiety and worry.”
For Smith, policy manager at Student Minds, it’s also important that we don’t medicalise anxiety and depression caused by the climate crisis. “The fact that some students are finding it difficult is a normal reaction. It shouldn’t be something that is treated but that students are provided with the tools to manage their feelings around it.”
She adds: “Learning about climate change and environmental issues can be overwhelming, so we need to provide strong morale so that students can see hope and opportunities to engage in environmental efforts. We want them to go out into the world and have the capacity to contribute to our societal issues as professionals.
“Their voices matter and it’s important that their feelings and their needs are taken seriously.”