Until two years ago, Jennifer Newall worked at the forefront of climate change research.
Her PhD on melting ice caps and changing sea levels had taken her to Antarctica, Scandinavia and the US, but when she led a workshop for primary school children in Glasgow, she began to wonder what she was doing.
“It dawned on me,” she says. “The physics behind this haven’t changed in my lifetime. They won’t change in the future.”
Jennifer says she realized that urgent action was needed and she no longer had the passion or motivation to study the effects further.
She put her career on hold to take more direct action, but she found the magnitude of the challenge overwhelming.
Jennifer is one of a growing number of people who have experienced “eco-anxiety” – a chronic sense of hopelessness and fear of environmental demise.
“It showed up as depression and anxiety,” she says. She felt completely paralyzed and was often unable to get out of bed.
It was during what she describes as her “eco-grief” that 33-year-old Jennifer decided she couldn’t have children.
She says, “I don’t feel I can have children because a) the world can’t handle it and b) I would feel guilty bringing a child into this world.”
Jennifer hasn’t completed her PhD on the vanishing ice caps — though she hopes to return to it one day.
She now lives in Perthshire with her mother and has found that mountain biking has helped her get some peace of mind.
Jennifer says she plans to set up a social enterprise project in Aberfeldy called Soulful Adventures In Nature (Sain) to help people improve their mental health through outdoor activities.
She accepts that the climate situation will worsen, but has learned not to feel personally guilty about the conditions.
“I felt hopeless and powerless. But luckily I chose to keep fighting to change that and have a world that I want to be a part of,” she says.
More than half think humanity is doomed
There is a growing awareness that changes in the environment affect not only physical health, but also mental health – although relatively little research has been done on its cognitive impact.
In 2021, Bath University lecturer, psychotherapist and researcher Caroline Hickman and her colleagues examined data from 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25 living in 10 different countries.
About half of the study participants reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless or guilty.
The study, published in Lancet Planetary Health, found that while threats varied in different countries — from food insecurity to pollution or flooding — there were similar levels of fear.
“More than half think humanity is doomed, 56% globally, 51% in the UK, 73% in the Philippines,” says Ms Hickman.
“So there’s more connection in a relationship. Being physically distant doesn’t protect you from the emotional and cognitive impact.”
Ms Hickman believes that an emotional response is good and that people should be concerned about the climate crisis.
“It’s healthy to be depressed, to feel sadness, to be angry about this,” she says.
However, she says it’s important not to get overwhelmed by these feelings.
Dr. Bridget Bradley, a lecturer in social anthropology at St. Andrews University, is another academic who has focused on eco-anxiety.
Her research questions whether this is a new and emerging mental health label and how it may affect family relationships.
Her first small-scale pilot study, in 2021, found that not only young people were affected, but also older activists who struggled to get their children or grandchildren to understand.
Her interest in eco-anxiety stemmed in part from her own experience after the birth of her son.
“I was already quite aware of environmental issues and concerns, but having a kid made all of that explode in ways I wasn’t prepared for,” she says.
Student Kyle Downie, 22, was an ardent climate activist but had to take a break due to his mental health. He is now taking antidepressants.
His mental health began to deteriorate in March last year and while eco-anxiety was not the sole cause, he believes it was a factor.
“It wasn’t because of eco-anxiety — but I think the eco-anxiety played a big part in the diagnosis of depression,” he says.
“I think that’s probably the case for a lot of people. Just because that sense of hopelessness is always there, it leads to depression.”
Kyle was part of the Fridays for Future protest movement, but when he faced burnout, he knew it was time to step back.
While being surrounded by fellow activists helped him, it wasn’t enough to keep him from feeling exhausted.
“When I get burned out, it’s usually when I’ve thrown myself into activism, haven’t taken enough time for myself, and then it feels very hopeless.” he says.
Kyle thinks there’s no point in continuing college if there’s no hope for the future.
He comes from a large family and previously thought he would want children, but like Jennifer, he has now decided that he doesn’t want to.
“It completely changed my mind about that, from where I really wanted kids, to now I don’t want to because I would feel too guilty bringing them into a world that’s so bleak,” he says.
“The future is so bad.”
Information and support for issues addressed in this article can be found on BBC Action Line.