Friday 18 October 2019

Patricia Casey: 'We must not leave children traumatised by this eco-anxiety'

Scary times: An environmental activist carries his daughter on his shoulders in the Global Climate Strike in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
Scary times: An environmental activist carries his daughter on his shoulders in the Global Climate Strike in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Patricia Casey

Walking through the Meadows, a beautiful park in the Old Town of Edinburgh, I noticed a sign on a school gate.

Children had just returned to school, it being the third week in August. The notice seemed a little absurd initially. I took several photos of it but it also made me feel creepy and I looked around to check that nobody was watching. My mobile phone went click, click, click. Thank goodness, the children were indoors and I hadn't been spotted. If I had I might have been reported to the police. They would have asked me what I was doing and my explanation that I was on my way to a concert at Queens Hall at 11am, 100 yards further on, would not have passed muster.

Why was I repeatedly taking a photograph of a handwritten notice in front of a school? I was photographing a statement attached to a school gate, written in very childlike, multicoloured handwriting that read: "I want you to panic. I want you to feel as if the ground is melting under your feet because it is."

I had this imaginary conversation as I read and reread the notice.

Policeman approaches.

Q. "Is there a problem with this notice?"

A. "It's a little unusual coming from eight-year-olds."

Q. "Why is that unusual?"

A. "It's just odd for children to be encouraging fear and forecasting the end of the world in this way. Shouldn't they really be doing their lessons?"

Q. "So you think this is wrong?"

A. "I just think they shouldn't be so terrified. It's worrying."

Request. "Please come with us, madam."

It is hardly surprising that children who heard these or similar words, from Greta Thunberg in her "I want you to panic" speech, will be fearful when they consider what they mean. Do they really mean that she wants panic? Panic is a terrifying emotion and one that should not be willed on children at any age, or for that matter on anybody. Any person advising panic is a voice that has no feeling for the alarm that those afflicted experience.

The overwhelming feeling is one of impending death as breathing becomes difficult, the heart pounds and the person experiences terror. They may be drenched in sweat. The causes might be bullying, sexual abuse, fear of living on the streets or a belief that the world will burn up and scorch all within it. The acuteness and powerlessness of the episode is what marks it as terrifying.

Such fears for the future of the earth are now called eco-anxiety. I confess that until six weeks ago I had not heard of this term. Psychologists are now reporting a huge surge in pathological fears about the future of the planet. These fears, particularly prevalent we are told among children, are existential in nature.

According to the narrative being pushed by eco-warriors, we have 11 years to turn things around before the end of the world becomes unstoppable. Then we are told the earth will shrivel, foodstuffs will be in short supply, possible famine will ensue and humans will die.

These mental health professionals are on the one hand wanting eco-anxiety to be recognised as a psychologically abnormal phenomenon but do not want it classified as a disorder.

One person discussing this on RTÉ radio said eco-anxiety could be beneficial and have the impact of mobilising children and youth against carbon emissions. Imagine a mental health professional saying anxiety and panic is OK? This may be trying to make a virtue of necessity or alternatively a willingness to sacrifice the wellbeing of children on the altar of hysteria about our future.

So panic, that engulfing, overwhelming constellation of symptoms, is acceptable because it will lead us all, including children, to do something about climate change.

Does anybody really believe that preventing the annihilation of the planet is something that should be heaped upon children? In an era of common sense, most people would believe this to be unreasonable and an aberration.

Children should be protected from things that they cannot do much about and climate change manifestly falls into this category. Good parents buffer against the day-to-day problems that assail the world and more especially the big ones. They try to be positive with their children and reassure them even when life is difficult. To do otherwise would be tantamount to emotional abuse.

If a teacher in school talked to children about burning in the fires of hell because of sin, it would trend on Twitter for weeks and the teacher would be fired, having first apologised for being so wrong. Yet we are willing to tolerate similar language predicting starvation, drowning and disease in the name of the environment in our conversations with children.

Reports indicate that children are now getting nightmares, refusing to drink water and losing weight in their anxiety to try to save the world.

Children and teenagers are fragile and need protection. Their thought processes are simple and binary. They do not see nuance - that comes later as the brain develops. For this reason, explicit and vivid images are usually avoided when discussing the issues of the day. Except, that is, on the issue of climate change, which with its graphic language is little different from the doom mongers of old.

"The End is Nigh" is the same refrain as the one the pastors of old used to terrify sinners into mending their ways. In its current incarnation, the language used about the unstoppable destruction of the planet has lost none of its force as we are mandated to mend our eco-sins. And it can be just as disquieting and disturbing to young minds.

Patricia Casey is Consultant Psychiatrist in the Mater Hospital, Dublin and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at UCD

Irish Independent

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