Climate Anxiety: An Illness of the System - MHI




Climate Anxiety:

An Illness of the System

Ayisha Siddiqa


illustrator’s bio

Amreeta Banerjee

Alice A. Barwa completed her MA in Education from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Univerity, Delhi (AUD), in 2022, and is from the Oraon Adivasi community, a native of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Chhattisgarh. She has been an advocate for Adivasi rights and voices as a member of an Adivasi youth collective @TheAdivasiPost, and has been an Adivasi youth representative at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Her research interests include education, culture, sociology, and linguistics.

Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it can serve an important function: it alerts humans to danger so that we can evaluate risk and take adequate action to protect ourselves, physically and psychologically. Nevertheless, eco-anxiety – or, anxiety about ecological degradation, including climate change – is often brushed aside as a trivial fear about the future when, in reality, it’s much more serious than that.

As Dr. Caroline Hickman, one of the leading authors of a global survey of children and young people’s experience with climate anxiety, puts it, “Climate anxiety is a signifier of mental and emotional health.” But if one were to probe further, eco-anxiety becomes an inadequate term to encompass all the mental health damage that climate change causes. Importantly, however, climate anxiety is not experienced equally among people in the Global South and the Global North, and neither does it impact the mental health of White people the same way as it does Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. Just like the physical damage of the climate crisis is endured disproportionately by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour), so are the mental health consequences of the climate crisis.

Utah Phillips1 once said, “The earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” And these names and addresses point to the fossil fuel industry and governments. It is not coincidental that these governments happen to be mostly in the Global North.

Researchers at the University of Bath conducted a survey of over 10,000 young people aged 16 to 24 from 10 different countries. They discovered that 60 percent of the youth felt “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change. 45 percent of them reported that climate anxiety affects their daily lives, with more than three-quarters believing that the future is frightening. 

From activists on the ground 

Disha Ravi is an activist with Fridays for Future2 from Bengaluru, India. Although Bengaluru is a landlocked city, she has noted that her city does not have the infrastructure it needs to withstand heavy monsoons. And over the past few years, heavier rains have generated significant damage. According to Disha, even if her city could withstand the heavy rain, it would be immensely difficult to ensure protections that match the increasing frequency of the monsoons.

Her “eco-anxiety” never seems to go away because she doesn’t know when her home will flood again – but the fact that it will flood is guaranteed. For Disha, this means she is in a chronic state of worry. What does it mean if entire generations suffer from anxiety related to the stability and habitability of their surroundings? States’ failure to stop climate disasters threatens children’s human rights as they deal with the serious mental health consequences of climate change. 

Farzana Faruk lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and only after she joined Fridays for Future did she hear of the term “eco-anxiety,” although she and the people around her have felt it for as long as she can remember. When just 11, Farzana witnessed Cyclone Aila displace more than one million people in the country. She recalls that those fleeing from the cyclone felt many pains when leaving their land behind, including the guilt of not being able to save it. The loss she describes is more complex than not having a roof over one’s head; it’s a feeling of pain similar to that felt when a loved one is suffering. 

Farzana considers herself privileged because she has not yet experienced a loss of the scale that the thousands coming to Dhaka as refugees after losing their homes have. However, Farzana is not safe in Dhaka. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index, Dhaka is the fourth-least liveable city in the world as of 2020. UNICEF estimates that one billion children  — nearly half of all kids on Earth – are at “extremely high risk” due to climate change. 

Almost every child on Earth has already been exposed to at least one major climate hazard. How can children in places like Dhaka escape the mental burden of the constant looming threat of displacement?

What does it mean if entire generations suffer from anxiety related to the stability and habitability of their surroundings?

What does it mean if entire generations suffer from anxiety related to the stability and habitability of their surroundings?

Problematising climate “anxiety”: the inequality of mental health consequences

Taking action against climate change by protesting, striking, and so on does not eliminate or even meaningfully diminish climate anxiety for those witnessing climate impacts unfurl in real-time. That means there’s an important distinction to be made between the post-traumatic stress that people like Farzana and Disha experience and the pre-traumatic stress people like Tori – who lives in the Global North — experience. The term eco-anxiety does not include the nuance between the stress that occurs, for example, as a result of watching your home flood (like Disha has), and that which occurs as one anticipates climatic disasters that have not yet occurred. The psychological impacts of anxiety resulting from the loss of safety, habitat, and loved ones are also different from fear of a future where these conditions occur, as these current losses have already altered children’s neural pathways.
To make this distinction more concrete, during the week of April 26, 2022, parts of Northern India and Pakistan reached 46-47°C in dry bulb temperatures, with wet bulb temperatures ranging from 22-23°C. Though the fear of temperatures like this becoming the norm in Europe may trigger climate anxiety, for people living through boiling weather right now the anxiety they feel produces a different degree of trauma – people are dying coming to and from work, and schools are shutting down due to the heat. 

That’s why I would argue that the research conducted, for example, by the University of Bath is incomplete – because the questions all relate to a fear of the distant future. The argument of “futures being threatened” is one Disha and Farzana both vehemently disagree with because it discounts the present reality of young people as well as the psychological damage the climate crisis is currently inflicting on people. It also homogenises trauma by making the climate anxiety experienced by those who have endured and witnessed climatic disasters in close vicinity the same as those who have not. 

Nylah Burton, author of “People of Color Experience Climate Grief More Deeply Than White People” (2020), explains how “climate anxiety” as often discussed in the mainstream can be akin to white fragility. That’s because, at best, it makes the trauma Black, Indigenous, and Brown people in the Global South experience equal to white climate anxiety in the Global North. And, at its worst, it puts the climate anxiety that white people in the Global North face on a higher pedestal of emotional distress, thereby discounting the long history of colonialism, imperialism, and racism which has allowed the climate crisis to flourish. 

For example, Inuit and Aboriginal youth are reporting higher rates of suicidal ideation and depression linked to the loss of nature and nature-based activities. This exposure to the natural world is not just recreational for native youth but also a pivotal part of their culture, education, and family histories. 

The focus on protecting the future is an extension of individualistic culture because, according to this logic, white people and people in the Global North should focus more on what they might lose than on protecting Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples from further loss. This disparity is clearly visible in the resources and professional help being allocated to support people in the Global North with climate anxiety in contrast to the dearth of mental health support offered to climate refugees and people in the Global South dealing with panic attacks, nightmares, and fear.

Tori, an activist from the UK, shares that in her country there seems to be a push and understanding among mental health professionals that climate anxiety and those experiencing it deserve adequate resources. But the discussion needs to go further than the symptoms the climate crisis is causing because climate anxiety is not an illness of individuals but an illness of the system. It cannot be cured or treated individually until governments can guarantee a safe and liveable future for their citizens.

Cite this Article View all References


  • Utah Phillips (1935 –2008), who identified as an anarchist, was an American labor organizer, folk singer, storyteller and poet from America. He often promoted the Industrial Workers of the World in his music, actions, and words. Retrieved from Accessed 22 September, 2022. 
  • Fridays for Future is an international climate movement active in most countries. It is a youth-led and -organised global climate strike movement that started in August 2018. Retrieved from on August 31, 2022. 
  • Buechner, M. 1 billion children at ‘extremely high’ risk from climate change. UNICEF USA, 2021.  Retrieved from on August 31, 2022. 
  • Burton, Nylah. People Of Color Experience Climate Grief More Deeply Than White People. Vice.Com, 2020, Retrieved from
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  • Dhar, S. Millions displaced by cyclone in India and Bangladesh. Reuters, 2009.  Retrieved from on August 31, 2022. 
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  • Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., & van Susteren, L.. “Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: A global survey”. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12). 2021. Retrieved from 
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