Australia must act to protect our mental and physical health

  • Young woman by the lake
Australian Psychological Society
Frances Mirabelli GAICD, Chief Executive Officer

Psychologists are seeing an increasing number of clients who say their concerns about climate change and the future of the planet are having a negative impact on their mental health, including increased depression and anxiety.

As experts in behaviour change, psychologists have much to say about what people can do to help prevent and mitigate the impacts of climate change and how to develop strategies to cope. And as the peak professional body for psychologists, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) has long advocated for climate change action.

In 2013, we signed a statement of commitment developed by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth and the Climate and Health Alliance to garner support for protecting our children and future generations from climate change.  

In November 2019, the APS was one of 43 international psychological associations to pledge to combat global climate change, at the International Summit on Psychology’s Contributions to Global Health in Lisbon. We have committed to apply psychological science to achieve this goal by encouraging leaders in government, academia, health and business to use more psychological science in the design of policies that promote sustainable preventive and corrective behaviours.

During Psychology Week 2019, our focus was on the climate crisis and its impact on youth. We established a Youth Advisory Group to hear directly from young people on the issue of climate change. Startlingly, we found that 95% of Australian youth believe that climate change is a serious problem, but their opinions and fears are being ignored by the government and policymakers.

Our Youth Advisory Group participants spoke of their anxiety about the climate crisis and their frustration at the lack of action in Australia to mitigate it. They reported a need to develop empathy for ‘the people of the future’ with respect to climate change.

The participants expressed uncertainty about what they could do at an individual level, a feeling which was at times overwhelming and affected their confidence that they could make a difference. However, they said they felt more supported and more hopeful around climate change when they were actively involved in pro-environmental behaviours, and supported by parents, teachers and peers.

It is critical that young people talk about their concerns with the adults in their lives, including what they know about the climate crisis and how they feel about it. It is easy to become overwhelmed, but we have a responsibility to listen to the young people in our lives and acknowledge that their feelings are real.

Many parents and other caregivers worry about how the climate crisis will affect their children’s future. The APS recommends communication, modelling and action to help young people feel empowered and help them cope with distressing feelings. We also recommend that young people consider what they can do about these issues, because taking action leads to greater self-efficacy, hopefulness and resilience. We must reassure young people that engaging in behaviours like walking, catching public transport, talking about climate change, and taking action to advocate for climate change policies and join action groups can, and will, make a difference.

Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century and urgent action must be taken. We are calling on Australia’s governments to act to protect current and future generations and protect our mental and physical health.

Rural GPs, nurses and other health practitioners are invited to access the APS resources for advocacy on climate change which include guides for coping and adapting to climate change, communicating about climate change, and the psychology of climate change denial.

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