'Action really helps' young people struggling with climate anxiety, psychologist says

For 19-year-old Paige Martin, climate change has felt like a weight on her mind since she was just 16 years old — sometimes even keeping her awake at night — but she knows she's not alone. 

"I took a global issues class and we learned a lot about it there, and then I started researching myself too out of curiosity," she said. "I kind of get freaked out thinking about it.

"I think it's definitely something youth are talking about," Martin said. 

Rhonda Matters, a practising child psychologist on the Island and member of the Psychological Association of P.E.I., says Martin is a part of a slowly increasing number of children experiencing climate anxiety on P.E.I. 

Climate anxiety or eco-anxiety are popular terms used to describe increasing concern over possible, future, or existing climate change related issues, Matters said.

It was detailed in a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association that suggests worrying about climate change is having a serious effect on our mental health, and it's something it says we need to pay more attention to.

'Small increase'

"Certainly in my practice, and in the practice of some other psychologists on P.E.I., we're seeing maybe a very small increase," she said. 

Treating climate anxiety in children is very similar to treating general anxiety, Matters said.

Feeling like there is a part we can play in addressing that concern is what helps kids. — Rhonda Matters

Acknowledging a child's anxiety over climate change and weather events is one of the most helpful and key methods in managing the anxiety, Matters said. It also allows children to think about the constructive things they can do about the situation. 

"Action really helps with anxiety. Feeling out of control or helpless increases or grows our anxiety.  But feeling like there is a part we can play in addressing that concern is what helps kids," she said. 

Sam Juric/CBC

And that's just what Martin has done. 

Her climate anxiety, Martin said, was a major motivator for her to spring into action and begin her own initiative to bring awareness to Islanders on how to live greener lifestyles, through her advocacy group, Green Everlasting. 

Locally we're seeing lots about floods, about forest fires, those kinds of news coverage bring it up for kids. — Rhonda Matters

Through Green Everlasting, Paige and co-founder Olivia Blacquiere, have spearheaded local roadside cleanups, bingo fundraisers, and seed planting events this past spring. 

The pair also have plans to host what they're calling a bee social on Aug. 10, where they expect to invite community members to join them in learning about the important role bees play in the ecosystem. 

The little things help

Aside from starting small advocacy groups like Martin and Blacquiere, Matters said, family discussions on ways to improve recycling in the home, figuring out greener ways to get to work and school or waste reduction can be small but beneficial ways to help children experiencing climate anxiety. 

Parents and teachers, Matters said, should focus on being direct and honest with children who are concerned with climate. 

Submitted by Paige Martin

"When kids are struggling with something they look to the adults they're closest to for guidance and support," she said.  

"Locally we're seeing lots about floods, about forest fires, those kinds of news coverage bring it up for kids and adults are connecting it to climate change," Matters said. 

In her practice, Matters also uses a technique called dialectical behaviour therapy, which works to show kids, "the idea that we accept but we still try to change," she said. 

Sam Juric/CBC

Taking action

Personally, Martin said being proactive has helped with her anxiety. 

"It makes me feel like I'm not sitting here doing nothing. I'm actually making action happen," she said. 

Martin's eight-year-old cousin Mariah Ralph is already beginning to grapple with her own climate anxiety. 

We always want to have hope. — Rhonda Matters

While she doesn't think about it all the time, she sometimes experiences vivid, unpleasant dreams of dead animals, Ralph said. 

The children Matters treats range from as young as six to as old as 18. 

Ultimately, having hope is the most constructive thing kids and adults can do, Matters said. 

"Feeling helpless and hopeless really gets people stuck in inaction and depression and so we always want to have hope."

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