Do you teach a subject that addresses climate change or another environmental issue? Are you concerned about the psychological impact of climate change for your students?

Anxious times

A lot of young people feel strongly about climate change and related environmental threats. In Deloitte’s 2019 survey of millennials and Gen Z in Australia, climate change rates as the number one concern. The #Fridaysforfuture movement is an indicator of the commitment many young people have for climate action. With more people awakening to the science of anthropogenic climate change, climate anxiety and eco-depression are on the rise.

Climate anxiety can be a problem if it is so intense that a person may become paralysed, but climate anxiety is not primarily a disease. Instead, it is an understandable reaction to the magnitude of the environmental problems that surround us.

Pihkala 2020

Research led

Researchers at UTS have been exploring questions of how to teach climate and environmental studies in a manner that integrates concerns for anxiety and despair felt by both students and faculty. Their research builds on primary data collected from a cohort of Environmental Communication students over summer session in 2019 in the School of Communication (FASS). Through teaching several iterations of the subject, the researchers observed that students presented with the daunting enormity of rapid planetary heating and species extinction (often for the first time), expressed strong emotions and a sense of feeling overwhelmed. The research data showed that many students recognise the importance of learning about climate change, but they struggle to integrate the content with their emotions, and with their anticipated roles as future communication professionals, citizens and decision-makers:

With the bushfires raging through Australia’s eastern states, I have personally felt a greater level of urgency to act. My eco-anxiety worsens at every news alert about forests being decimated and animal species becoming extinct.

Environmental Communication Student 2020

Resource kit

The research team (myself, Dr Jeremy Walker and Dr Jenny Kent) have developed a resource that seeks to have a positive impact by taking account of well being and resilience during the teaching semester. The resource, titled: ‘Staying sane in the face of climate change and other dilemmas: A toolkit of emerging ideas to support emotional resilience, mental health and action’ supports students in acknowledging the emotional impacts of climate and environmental issues. There is currently a shortage of tools and resources in this area, and this is an attempt to build the capacity of educators and students of ‘crisis subjects’ to remain positive, resilient and effective.

Educators need new skills and resources to assist students confronting the emotional impacts of content to ensure each individual’s capacity for action is not compromised, and to maintain their quality of life. As a pedagogical tool, Staying Sane aims to equip educators, students and future graduates of the ‘Climate Generation’ with resources, recommendations and guidance to:

  • Part A: Negotiate emotional responses to crises and help address climate anxiety/eco-depression
  • Part B: Participate in meaningful collective action and engaged citizenship
  • Part C: Translate educational experiences into empowered prospective careers and develop effective climate communication skills

Psychological literature suggests that existential anxiety provoked by knowledge of climate and ecological crises can be paralysing or motivating, depending on the psychological profile of individuals and the support structures available. Developing a resilience mindset is vital. Climate researcher Renee Lertzman, points to a paradox at the centre of our environmental and climate dilemmas. She argues that it is very difficult for most people to look at climate change and ecological destruction in a regulated, constructive, integrated, balanced and effective way. This is because such issues are inherently difficult and push us out of a state of balance and regulation. Lertzman advocates for ‘brave spaces’ where individuals can engage with their own (and other people’s) complex emotions.

I’ve come to realise that whatever occupation I end up in, whether it be filmmaking or journalism, I must have a conscious environmental mission within it so I can assist in the transition to a renewable future.

Environmental Communication Student 2020

Teaching staff can utilise the toolkit as a teaching and community-relevant resource, in a face-to-face context, as part of an online course or as a resource given to students to access independently. Educators across faculties who want to improve their ability to integrate personal and collective well being into formal teaching and learning may be interested in the resource. We also hope that student services, career advisors and other tertiary support teams may find it a valuable resource for advice and guidance in their context.

Find out more…

You can access the student version of the kit via the link below. If you would like the version for teaching staff, please email Tania – the research team are keen to hear how you make use of it!

Download file

Climate Toolkit Student Version
Size: 1.92 MB
File type: pdf

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