Nature – a source of solace or anxiety for children and young people?

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In Mental Health Awareness week, Dr Verity Jones, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE Bristol explains that although connecting with nature is important for our mental health, increasingly, children and young people are experiencing anxiety about the natural world and the environment. Dr Jones has proposed a three-stage approach to engaging children and young people with these issues and has also devised a questionnaire for 7 – 18 year olds which will enable young people to talk about climate change and have their voice heard in this important global issue.

The central theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 is Nature and how connecting with it can benefit our mental health. Going outside, taking a walk, being in green spaces.

Research by the Mental Health Foundation reports that through the pandemic, going outside was one of our top coping strategies. This is perhaps unsurprising when Nature is central to our psychological and emotional health. However, there are growing numbers of people who, rather than finding solace in Nature, instead are becoming more anxious by it. Eco-anxiety is a growing concern. There is a deadline approaching –  the UN have suggested that humanity only has 9 years to take action in the face of the potential catastrophic effects of climate change.  Combine this with the images of wildfires, droughts, floods and famines that bombard our social media streams and news reels and the result is increasing numbers of young people feeling deeply negative thoughts. Many of our children are losing sleep, not eating properly, not communicating. Many of our children are feeling helpless.

In the research I do with children and young people I often hear how they are scared, anxious and angry about the state of the world. These feelings need space to be discussed. In many schools, consideration of climate change may be reading the news in tutor time, or talking about the physical processes or social and environmental impacts in science or geography. There is little time for our young learners to talk about how they feel and try and make sense of what is going on.

I support a three stage approach to engaging children and young people with these issues.

  1. Make time to talk – having space to share feelings will help individuals they are not alone.
  2. Make time to plan – find out ways that individuals can get involved in doing something. Recognising that children and young people can be part of the solution, part of their community, is really powerful.
  3. Making time to do – don’t just talk about making changes actually do them. This could be something at home (switching off lights, wasting less food or water or mending clothes) or it could be with the community (helping tidy and plant a local green space, do a beach clean, sign petitions, write to authorities).

Including young people in discussions and actions is vital if we are to move towards more sustainable futures together; more hopeful futures.

Unfortunately, including children and young people in discussions doesn’t always happen. In fact, sometimes they are completely ignored.   Back in March, SKYNews reported on a survey that was supposedly representing the views of Britain with regard climate change and what the population thought were (or weren’t) appropriate actions for them to take. Looking at this in a little more detail  it seems that Britain was represented by adults over 18 years old. All other younger people were ignored. In my view, this is wrong. If we are to represent Britain we can’t ignore a large section of the society. So, I have rewritten the survey questions for younger audiences and have gained ethical clearance from UWE to send out an updated version for 7 –  18 year olds. Doing this survey will provide a space for adults and young people to talk about climate change, as well as provide young people a voice in this important global issue.

Being in / with Nature can improve our well being, but if we are to support those with eco-anxiety, we also need to have time to talk about this relationship and do something about it.

If you have a 7-18 year old who would like to take part in this anonymous survey please contact Verity on  Verity6.Jones@uwe.ac.uk.

Survey closes 31st May 2021.

Photos by Eyoel Khassay Callum Shaw on Unsplash

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