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Support for distress associated with climate change in Finland – “The mind of eco-anxiety”

(Case study developed for the European Climate and Health Observatory)

Even though climate change substantially influences mental health and well-being, attention to this issue in science and practice has been limited. Climate- or eco-anxiety are emerging concepts describing the distress linked to environmental and climate change. Feelings of anxiety can be caused by a chronic fear of environmental disaster and concerns for the humanity, as a reaction to the complex problem in absence of clear solutions. “The mind of eco-anxiety” (Ympäristöahdistuksen mieli) project has been established by concerned mental health and social work professionals to address these negative mental health impacts of the ecological and climate crises in Finland. The name of the project in Finnish is a play on words. The Finnish word "mieli" means both "mind" and "meaning". Thus the project, through its title, asks people  to think about the meaning of eco-anxiety. It also links with the Finnish name of the World’s oldest non-profit organization for the protection of mental health, Mental Health Finland, ‘MIELI’, and naturally with the dynamics of the mind.

Three non-governmental organisations (NGOs) jointly established the initiative as they acknowledged a lack of adequate emotional support for this increasingly widespread mental health problem. The project launched a campaign with all Finnish mental health organisations to raise awareness for the topic in society, and it developed various forms of mental health support for people affected. In addition, training has been offered for professionals who work with those particularly affected by climate- and eco-anxiety, such as youth and young adults.

Case Study Description

Challenges

Climate change will not only affect physical health, but also has consequences for mental health and well-being (Lawrance et al., 2021). However, research on its psychological impacts has generally been limited and if addressed, focused on impacts of extreme events rather than the more long-term and gradual effects on mental health (Burenby et al., 2021). Nevertheless, a number of emergent concepts exist that recognise some of the indirect mental health impacts, including those of eco-anxiety and climate anxiety (Wu et al. 2020). As they increasingly manifest in society, especially among young people (e.g. Wu et al., 2020; Hickman et al., 2021), they are widely addressed in the media and a growing body of research (Pihkala, 2020a, 2020b). Eco-anxiety is the anxiety and distress about the ecological crisis (Pihkala, 2020b), while climate anxiety acknowledges such consequences from climate change specifically (Clayton, 2020). They can manifest in various and complex forms; some symptoms have been found to include general fear and worry, grief, guilt, hopelessness, obsessive thinking, panic attacks, insomnia, and others (see e.g. Pihkala, 2020a, 2020b; Wu et al., 2020).

Researchers have called for action to acknowledge and address climate anxiety in practice, especially for youths (Wu et al., 2020; Hickman et al., 2021). However, a recent EEA analysis found that only few EEA member and collaborating countries have considered possible mental health effects of climate change in their national adaptation and public health policies. Finland is among the few countries that did address climate anxiety to some extent, but preventative measures and specific measures to address climate change impacts on mental health need to be implemented within the social affairs and health services (Burenby et al., 2021).

Objectives

Founders of the “mind of eco-anxiety” project noted increasing mental health challenges linked to climate change in Finland and set out to address them by making use of their expertise in offering mental health support. Therefore, the project aims at:

  • Providing people across all ages with the tools to deal with and regulate emotions experienced in the form of eco- or climate anxiety, thus building participants’ resilience. While the project is open for a general audience, it is mainly targeted at people who are vulnerable to emerging eco-anxiety, including those working with, or studying, environmental sciences; people with a strong environmental identity; young people; and individuals with other burdening life experiences.
  • Raising awareness to initiate public conversations, among other things, to foster recognition among those who experience symptoms but might be unaware of its cause or ways to deal with them.
  • Advocating for the recognition of eco-anxiety and eco-emotions (emotions related to the environment) as a larger societal phenomenon instead of a psychiatric diagnosis or individual problem.
  • Initiating action among different organisations and other societal actors to incorporate knowledge on eco-emotions in their work with different groups of people throughout society.

 In addition, the project seeks to promote the importance of overall mental well-being.

Solutions

To achieve its goals, the project makes use of the existing skills and expertise of the social and mental health workers in dealing with other mental health issues. Their know-how of solutions already widely used in social and mental health care are transferred to a new area of work, i.e. dealing with environmental emotions, mainly climate change. The activities of the project include three pillars (all free of charge to the participants):

  • Awareness: campaigns to raise awareness about eco-anxiety.
  • Support: direct mental health support to a broad audience.
  • Education: for professionals who work with those who already experience or are likely to experience difficult emotions in relation to environmental changes.

Awareness: The campaign “Let’s talk about eco-emotions” was launched in March 2021, including a call for environmental emergency endorsed by all national organisations working on mental health. Furthermore, the “mind of eco-anxiety” organised a number of webinars on the topic in 2021 targeting the social and health care sector, NGOs, as well as public and private actors. The Ympäristöahdistus.fi website was launched in February 2021 to collect and provide up-to-date information and resources on the topic, as well as provide new materials and information packages. These included references to scientific articles; an overview of different psychotherapy approaches to dealing with the issue; and short informational articles published in collaboration with experts. In addition, several public engagement activities were conducted, including:

  • Production of several podcast episodes, one of them being directed at young people hesitant to have children due to global environmental changes.
  • Organisation of group conversation chats to specifically reach out to farmers and rural populations. These communities’ livelihoods are directly impacted by climate change but their voices are not heard in the public debates.

The awareness-raising campaigns reached about 3,570,000 views via various channels. In 2022, the project plans to focus more on youth organisations and the educational sector.

Support: For direct mental health support for those affected by eco-anxiety, the project has developed a group-based model for dealing with environmental feelings, which focused on:

  • Recognising eco-emotions and dealing with them.
  • Learning coping skills.
  • Building supportive community.
  • Strengthening future perspectives.

Support groups were planned, mainly targeting young people, although people of all ages can participate. The concept envisioned 3-5 support sessions, which ideally included 10-15 participants and one facilitator from the project team, usually with a background in social work and/or mental health care. While sessions initially included general information on climate anxiety, they later focused on the tools and skills available to deal with ‘environmental emotions’ to give more room to participants’ own experiences and perceptions. The focus was on group formation and group dynamics to facilitate the sharing of feelings and peer support. The project has trained a number of volunteers in Autumn 2021, who will later on be able to lead group sessions themselves and thereby extend the activities all over the country. Another training session is planned for April 2022. However, volunteer-led groups have yet to be implemented in practice.

The project additionally offered workshops on how to address eco-/climate anxiety, by conveying tools and activities that can enhance mental well-being and help in expressing the emotions experienced.

Mindfulness exercises were also integrated and the importance of empathy, both towards others and themselves, was emphasised. Participants were supported in helping to find and follow meaningfulness and their most important values, and how this can promote mental well-being and the ability to become active in appropriate ways.

By early 2022, about 360 participants (mainly within the age group of 20 to 30 years old) took part in 30 eco-emotions workshops and support groups.

Education: Lastly, the “mind of eco-anxiety” organised activities geared towards professionals working in education, health and social work, to train them on how to deal with people suffering anxiety related to environmental changes. The three-hour trainings conveyed tools to facilitate discussions and discover pre-existing emotional and psychosocial skills, and to recognise and process eco-emotions and eco-anxiety within their target groups (and themselves) more specifically. Some additional two-hour webinars with similar content and guest speakers were held to address a more general audience as well. To support the activity, a “Small Guide to Environmental Anxiety - Information Pack for Teachers and Educators” was completed. The material has also been translated into Swedish to extend its reach.

To attract participants, the initiative reached out to nature conservation organisations, activist groups as well as universities. As the latter presented a particular target group, the project held participatory lectures for staff and workshops for students at the University of Helsinki to discuss which model of mental health support they would like to adopt and what kind of emotional support would be of use.

About 1160 professionals (mainly women) attended around 30 training and other informational events.

Relevance

Case developed and implemented and partially funded as a CCA measure.

Additional Details

Stakeholder Participation

The idea for the project was initiated by Tunne ry - an NGO that was specifically founded in 2018 to address issues of mental health relating to climate and environmental change - together with the internationally recognised researcher of ecological emotions, Associate Professor Panu Pihkala from Helsinki University. It was then developed and jointly implemented with two other Finnish organisations: Nyyti ry, an organisation that promotes mental health among students specifically, and MIELI Mental Health Finland, which seeks to provide crisis support and prevent mental health issues in Finnish society and is the world’s oldest NGO dedicated to mental health. The project is funded by STEA, the Funding Centre for Social Welfare and Health Organisations in Finland.

Additional collaboration exists with the:

During the project planning process, a needs assessment was conducted through a survey with around 500 participants from the general public. Pilot groups and workshops were additionally set up to test the project’s approach. In-person meetings were foreseen, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic activities were moved online.

Success and Limiting Factors

The funding available for three years contributed to the success of the project implementation as it enabled the  free of charge access for the participants. The project received positive feedback from participants (high interest in gaining knowledge about eco-anxiety and eco-emotions, improved wellbeing and sense of common understanding), encouraging continuation of the project. Large media interest resulted in several invitations to various events. The involvement of a public personas (the Shouting Man) contributed to the success of the initiative, extending its reach.

One of the main challenges faced by the project arose from the fact that all activities had to be transferred online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This affected the project’s ability to reach out to people and connect with them more meaningfully. Shorter, less in-depth online workshop formats were prepared to support the interest of the participants and to encourage their active participation.

Another challenge was the limited participation in the chats organised specifically for rural communities and farmers and the limited participation of people already having strong environmental identities (e.g. activist groups) in the project activities. Therefore, better integration of emotional support within the climate activity communities should be encouraged, instead of external mental health organisations becoming involved.

Costs and Benefits

STEA, the Funding Centre for Social Welfare and Health Organisations in Finland, provided the project with 640,000 € for a period of three years (2020-2022).

This enabled four employees (two full-time, two part-time) to dedicate their full attention to the project and the provision of mental health support free of charge to the participants. In turn, this has benefitted the numerous participants, and will likely benefit many more in an indirect manner due to trainings for professionals, the provision of resources on the project-website, newly developed practical concepts, and raised awareness around the topic. Furthermore, the promotion of mental health in the context of climate change can be an important driver for fostering effective climate actions.

The project was a bottom-up initiative that did not act upon any specific legislation. However, Finland has acknowledged potential mental health impacts of climate change in its climate change adaptation plan of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (2021), including environmental or climate anxiety.

Implementation Time

The idea to address mental health issues related to environmental and climate change materialised in Tunne ry’s foundation in 2018, with a project proposal by all involved actors submitted in mid-2019. Project implementation started in early 2020 to continue until the end of 2022, under the current funding period. Plans exist to continue the activities beyond this timeframe if additional resources become available, potentially adjusting the scope and format based on lessons learned from the current project, and possibly engaging new partners.

Life Time

Due to the project features, the lifetime of “mind of eco-anxiety” corresponds to its implementation time (3 years). However, the positive effects of improving knowledge, awareness and coping skills are expected to last longer than the project duration itself, creating the conditions for actual climate actions.

Reference Information

Contact

Hanna Rintala,

specialist in environmental emotions and support,  Nyyti ry

hanna.rintala@nyyti.fi

Reference

Burenby, L., Partonen, T., Carter, T. R., Ruuhela, R., Halonen, J. (2021). Climate Change and Mental Health. Discussion Paper 32/2021. Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare.  

Clayton, S. (2020). Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 74, 102263. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102263

Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, E., Mayall, E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), E863-E873. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3

Lawrance, E., Thompson, R., Fontana, G., Jennings, N. (2021). The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice. Grantham Institute, Briefing Paper No 36, Imperial College London.  https://doi.org/10.25561/88568 

Pihkala, P. (2020a). Anxiety and the Ecological Crisis: An Analysis of Eco-Anxiety and Climate Anxiety. Sustainability, 12(19), 7836. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12197836

Pihkala, P. (2020b). Eco-Anxiety and Environmental Education. Sustainability, 12(23), 10149. https://doi.org/10.3390/su122310149

Wu, J., Snell, G., Samji, H. (2020). Climate anxiety in young people: a call to action. The Lancet, 4(10), pp E435-E436. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30223-0

Published in Climate-ADAPT Apr 01 2022   -   Last Modified in Climate-ADAPT May 25 2022


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