Climate change anxiety and the art of storytelling
How can we support young people’s mental health, without removing the urgency of the climate crisis? By Landfill Mountains author, Rab Ferguson
There was a youth mental health crisis in the UK before COVID-19. I know this from personal experience. Pre pandemic, I was employed as the young people’s manager at a mental health charity. During the lockdowns, I moved on from that role to focus more on writing and literature, but I never forgot the young people I’d worked with.
When I first started with the charity in 2016, waiting times for support from the local CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) stood at about one year. By 2020, we were being quoted over one and a half years to wait for support.
The worst thing was that youth mental health workers I knew from other areas were jealous of our local wait times. In several places across the UK, it took even longer for young people to access NHS mental health support. This was before talk of unprecedented times and the R number.
It was before mask debates, super spreader events, and social distancing. I hate to imagine what it’s like for young people trying to access support now. All I know, is that when I left that job in early 2021, it was getting worse, not better. The number of young people needing to access mental health services was rising rapidly, without adequate support available to meet that need.
So, here comes the eternal question. Why? Why are young people in the 21st century struggling more with their mental health than earlier generations, even excluding the impact of COVID-19? From my observation, it’s an issue of disposable culture. Like so much else in our society, youth mental health is being thrown away.
When young people are brought up into an unsustainable world, and told that even their climate is dying, is it any surprise that they are feeling depressed and anxious?
The technology generation
Modern technology is always brought up in relation to this issue, with technological advances over the last few centuries often linked with declining youth mental health. Smartphones and social media are commonly centred in those explanations.
There’s a lot of risk factors which are mentioned: unhealthy comparisons with others, online bullying, addictive methods of validation (“likes”). I wouldn’t be doing the complexity of the subject justice without also noting that online is also the only place where many young people find support and community.
While this new technology undoubtedly has had an impact on young people’s wellbeing, it also feels overly simplistic to place blame on these social tools without looking at the world they actually connect young people into. It’s a world where their own futures are uncertain, and they can’t rely on the society they grew up in to last.
Not only are social injustices rife, economies prone to crashing, world-ending weapons widely available, and the consequences of the pandemic still ongoing — the planet itself is sick as well.
Today’s technology allows young people to be constantly up to date on melting ice caps, unmet carbon targets, and increasing damage from extreme weather events.
In recent years, they’ve watched vivid footage of parts of the world burning or flooding due to climate change. It’s all a bit biblical and apocalyptic, and there’s the same message that underlies all of it: it’s only going to get worse.
How can young people maintain positive mental health, when they are continually given evidenced-based reasons to be anxious and depressed about the state of the planet they live on?
The difficult part about it, at least from a mental health support perspective, is that it’s all true. Breaking down and rationalising a looming issue like climate change can only be so useful, because it really is the end of the world as we know it.
Young people understand the damage being done to the Earth. Trying to diminish the significance of climate change is dishonest and patronising, neither of which are helpful things to be when engaging with teenagers. They’re not an age group that appreciate being talked down to, especially around the big issues. Frankly, I can understand that.
“If we can listen to young people tell their stories, and work with them to start changing our society in a way that makes it sustainable for both the climate and for youth mental health, then maybe we can start to see some real change ”
The telling of stories
So, what we need instead, is a way of supporting young people’s mental health without erasing the danger that an unsustainable society poses to their future. There seems to me two essential ingredients to this. Hope, that the world can change, and the future can be better, and belief, that a person can be part of that change.
The first lets in some light, and the second prevents feeling powerless. One powerful tool I’ve found to help nurture both is education in the telling of stories. This is a subject I’m very invested in. In fact, I wrote a whole book about it.
My debut novel Landfill Mountains is all about teenagers learning to take control of the magic of storytelling, to find hope in a post climate change world. The reason I’m ‘write-a-book’ passionate about this is because through my mental health work I’ve seen the benefit learning about narrative can have on young people’s wellbeing.
In a lot of ways, mental health is about storytelling. It’s how we describe our own character in relation to the setting of our world, and comprehend the plot of our own lives. Once we learn the fundamentals of how to put a story together, we can apply them to how we tell the story of ourselves.
When it comes to climate change and humanity’s impact on the planet, this art of storytelling is especially important. The way the story is often told in the media, framing global warming as inevitable and societal change as nigh-on impossible, discourages action.
It tells young people they cannot change their world, and that it’s a waste of time to try. Unsurprisingly, not great for mental health. But if they can look at the story they are being presented with, and choose instead to reconstruct it, telling the story of their rebellion against this unsustainable way of living, then there can be hope.
Rebellion against dystopian societies is popular in Young Adult fiction (look at The Hunger Games and Divergent) because it’s a theme that resonates and inspires. If we teach young people about telling stories and the construction of narratives, we give them the tools to analyse the media and protect their own mental health.
It’s not a grand solution to either the youth mental health crisis or the climate crisis, but it’s one way to help. If we can listen to young people tell their stories, and work with them to start changing our society in a way that makes it sustainable for both the climate and for youth mental health, then maybe we can start to see some real change.
Words Rab Ferguson, rabtales.co.uk