Story | 12 Jun, 2024

Caring for conservationists

In an era of climate and biodiversity crisis, how can we all look after our mental health? Coreen Grant investigates

Moke Lake Spending recreational time in nature can be hugely beneficial (photograph of Moke Lake, New Zealand)


Two and a half years ago, an international team of researchers conducted the first large-scale investigation of climate anxiety in young people, surveying 10,000 people aged16 to 25 years in 10 countries across the globe.

The results, published in the The Lancet Planetary Health journal, were eye-opening. Nearly 60% of participants reported that they were ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ worried about climate change, with this rising to above 90% in countries already experiencing the impacts first-hand, such as the Philippines. Globally, more than half of respondents described feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless or guilty, and more than 45% said their feelings negatively affected their daily life.

There is constant fear and distress with the climate change impacts that my country is confronted with.

The study shed critical light on the growing and global extent of ‘eco-anxiety’, an umbrella term which encompasses the complex stress, anxiety and depression that can arise from extreme worry about the environment. Eco-anxiety can range from mild stress through to clinical depression, with the American Psychological Association defining the term as “chronic fear of environmental doom”.

Liz Willetts, the coordinator of IUCN’s CEM Human Health and Ecosystem Management Thematic Group, said that newly coined terms such as eco-anxiety and ‘solastalgia’ (melancholia or homesickness caused by environmental change) are “telling indicators” of how large-scale environmental damage is increasingly causing negative mental and emotional conditions.

“There is constant fear and distress with the climate change impacts that my country is confronted with,” says Precious Grace David, a member of Youth Strike for Climate Philippines. Classes in schools are currently suspended there because of extreme heat.

Towards understanding

One of the authors of the study into climate anxiety was Caroline Hickman.

Caroline heckman Caroline heckman

A climate psychologist and lecturer at the University of Bath in the UK, Hickman tells me she has been immersed in this area of psychological research – and as a therapist – for over 15 years, yet she is still constantly learning. “If people are struggling to know how to deal with eco-anxiety, or how to feel, quite honestly, they’re in good company, because nobody really knows how to navigate this stuff,” she admits.“It is an emerging psychological trauma, and so our brains scramble about like Bambi on ice.”

One of the most important things to understand, according to Hickman, is that this is not a mental illness – and while we do not know all the answers, there are things we know can help. The first step, she says, is to validate feelings of anxiety.

Young people are growing up in a daunting environment, where they often feel frustrated and angry that adults are not taking action.

When Hickman’s study was published, she received emails from young people “all over the world, saying thank you for that research, because it made them feel less alone. They felt heard, valued and understood.”

The lonely conservationist

Jessie Panazzolo is a 31-year-old conservationist and blogger from Melbourne, Australia who runs the popular blogging website ‘The Lonely Conservationist’. Panazzolo thinks one reason why her blog resonates with others in her profession is that people don’t tend to receive help to deal with the emotional impact of their jobs, despite working on the front-line of environmental destruction. According to The Handbook of Climate Psychology, written by the Climate Psychology Alliance, climate anxiety can affect people of all ages, but is often felt most powerfully by the young, by first responders to natural disasters, and by environmental scientists and activists who are exposed to information about the threat more than most.

Running the blog has helped Panazzolo deal with her own anxiety. Previously, she felt that whatever work she put in would never be enough to have an impact on the natural world, especially when she saw people going about their daily lives without concern for the environment. Through the blog she has gained an insight into the vast number of people globally working in conservation. “It made me realise that the world’s not on my shoulders. I care about conserving conservationists – that is my part and I’m going to do it well.”

Prech Dave

Members of Youth Strike for Climate Philippines also say that coming together has transformed their outlook and given them hope. Precious Graze David says:

These things that I do – no matter the size – and the people I work with, help alleviate the feeling of hopelessness, bringing me comfort in times when Iam overwhelmed.

Hold this space

In 2022, Imperial College London worked with environmental scientists, psychologists and young people to design Hold This Space, a digital tool to help people develop coping skills and resilience in the face of anxiety. Similar websites are appearing in other countries too, such as the Climate Feelings Space run by Psychology for a Safe Climate in Australia, or the Good Grief Network in the USA.

Aside from psychological support, Panazzolo adds that it is important to remember the power of simply spending time in nature. “I think it’s sometimes hard for us to remember, when we’re in the thick of it, to just go out in nature and enjoy it.”

Countless studies prove the wellbeing benefits of nature for both physical and mental health, and a growing number of organisations help people make the most of it.

In the Highlands of Scotland, the National Health Service (NHS) leads a Green Health Partnership which aims to reduce health inequalities through increased connection with nature. One of the main messages of the initiative is that time spent in nature doesn’t have to involve scaling mountains; a walk in the local park or windowsill gardening can have a positive mental effect.

Ultimately, this type of anxiety is a symptom of people who want to change the world – and that is something to be valued and channelled toward positive change. Sacha Wright is a researcher at Force of Nature, an organisation empowering people to turn their climate anxiety into action. Speaking with London’s Natural History Museum, Wright’s top tips were to share your feelings with like-minded people, seek out positive stories and break down personal action into bite-sized pieces.

When you feel helpless, focus on what is within your control, then take small steps in the right direction,” she advises.

“Often, motivation follows action, rather than the other way around. The more you do, the more you see that you can do.”

Several other parts of IUCN work on health and nature. These include:

•  IUCN WCPA Health and Well-Being Network

•  IUCN SSC Wildlife Health Specialist Group

Recent and relevant IUCN resolution:

•  WCC 2016 Res 064