Helping students cope with stress around climate change

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Exhaust fumes from a power station. Credit: Pixabay.

Rallies to protest inaction over climate change are happening in more than 100 countries today, including Australia, Japan, France, and the U.S. They come ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit on Sept. 23 in New York. 

85% of news about climate change is negative and alarmist, says Sarah Ray, who teaches environmental studies at Humboldt State University. This can lead to many people feeling anxious and even depressed. And so, services are popping up for eco-grief counseling.

"It's a combination of a feeling of coming to terms and a reckoning with the reality of the situation, and also a feeling of efficacy or not being able to do anything about it. So the combination is pretty lethal," Ray says. 

She says students who came to her classroom started off idealistic, then learned more about the scale and scope of climate change. They had to think about how they'd shift their entire lives because of it and push larger structures like governments to enact change too. "That just feels extremely overwhelming, and it results in a lot of people turning around and leaving the classroom, and not being able to cope."

Ray says it's incumbent upon educators to recognize that students are emotional beings. "To think that they can check their emotional lives at the door when they come into the class is really to undermine what we hope students are going to do with this information, which is go out in the world, and be leaders, and help fix some of these problems," she says. 

Ray has tailored her assignments to ensure that students have the emotional tools to navigate climate change long-term. She's collaborating with the journalism department to create news pieces centered on solutions. 

Ray wants to cultivate more positive emotions within her students, including hope, empowerment, and a sense of collectivity. 

"I love the urgency of the moment. I love the marches… But urgency is not a viable mode for long-term work. And I want to teach students that while urgency has a role in social movements, it actually leads to burnout and all kinds of negative emotional states," she says. "And so some of the things that we talk a lot about is: How is it that we're going to cultivate the kind of long-term resilience, and emotional wellbeing, and skills, and interior work that's going to enable us to do this every day for the rest of our lives." 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Caleigh Wells