Lisa-Maria Muller, Chartered College of Teaching, UK
The latest Children’s Commissioner’s report on children’s mental health indicates that one in five children are unhappy with their mental health, and for girls this rate is even higher (Children’s Commissioner, 2023). NHS data indicates that 18 per cent of children aged 7-16 and 26 per cent of those aged 17-19 have a mental health disorder, an increase from the previous year (NHS, 2022). The increasing number of children and young people who may be struggling with their mental health does not go unnoticed by teachers and other education professionals. Ninety-five per cent of education professionals reported in a recent poll that they had witnessed increasing levels of anxiety among their students (Place2Be, 2022).
Feeling anxious versus anxiety disorders
In order to understand how best to support children and young people who feel anxious, it is important to differentiate between feelings of anxiety and anxiety disorders. Anxiety is a normal, usually short-term response to an external stressor, such as an upcoming exam for example, but the feeling tends to cease once the stressor disappears (APA, 2022). Talking with children through their feelings, breathing techniques or distraction can all help to support children through short-term phases of worry (NHS, 2023).
For some students, feelings of anxiety do not disappear and can turn into an anxiety disorder, which is typically defined as anxiety that is persistent, excessive and unrealistic (National Library of Medicine, 2016), and usually out of proportion to the threat. Some symptoms of anxiety in children and young people include but are not limited to: physical symptoms brought on by panic attacks and digestion problems; thoughts and feelings involving a sense of overwhelm, lack of control or obsessive thoughts; and coping behaviour such as withdrawal, crying or self-harm (NHS, 2023; YoungMinds, n.d.). It should be noted that symptoms can often be internalised in the context of anxiety, making it difficult to recognise.
Although criteria exist to differentiate between feelings of anxiousness and anxiety disorders, the boundaries between the two are often not clear cut. Below we present an example of a newly described form of anxiety – climate anxiety – which affects an increasing number of people, especially adolescents, to illustrate why it can be difficult to define boundaries between normal levels of anxiety and anxiety disorders.
Climate change anxiety
Climate change has many people worried, with young people being particularly worried (Phillips, 2023; Ogunbode et al., 2022; APA, 2018). We are not talking about post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of having been affected by environmental disasters such as floods, forest fires or droughts. You can read more about the direct impact of natural disaster and displacement on children in our Education in Times of Crisis report (Muller and Goldenberg, 2020). Here we focus instead on the feelings of worry and dread people can experience in response to a changing climate without necessarily having experienced these consequences directly. As climate anxiety has not yet been officially recognised as an anxiety disorder, it serves as a good illustration of blurry boundaries between feelings of anxiousness and anxiety disorders.
Some level of worry about climate change is needed to prompt positive behavioural changes (Ogunbode et al., 2022; Wang et al., 2018). A study comparing responses to worries about climate change in 32 countries found that while climate change anxiety negatively affected individuals’ wellbeing, it was positively related to pro-environmental behaviour and climate action However, feelings of worry and fear can be overwhelming for some individuals (Woodland Trust, 2023; Croasdale et al., 2023). Clayton and Karazsia (2020) distinguish between ‘adaptive’ and ‘maladaptive’ reactions to climate change and have found that responses to climate change can result in a range of emotional cognitive and functional impairments. A recent study has also found a strong correlation between symptoms of climate change anxiety and general anxiety disorder, suggesting that it particularly affects people who are already worried about other things (Schwartz et al., 2022).
Let’s talk about it – the important role of communication
A systematic review of therapeutic approaches to climate anxiety suggests that fostering clients’ inner resilience, connecting them with nature and other people to find social support as well as encouraging them to take action might be more effective in this context (Baudon and Jachens, 2021).
Children’s attachment to their parents and other caregivers is crucial for their socio-emotional development (Halle et al., 2014). Parents and children share their emotions, discuss problems and voice frustrations through dialogue, which also teaches children how to regulate their emotions (Bernier et al., 2010). Young people who communicate more with their parents tend to show lower levels of risky behaviour, and higher levels of wellbeing and academic achievement (Bireda and Pillay, 2018). Recent evidence suggests that parent-child communication served as a protective factor for children’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic (Tang et al., 2021).
Creating a space to talk about worries and fears
Teachers, too, can play a role in providing space to talk about worries and fears. Anxiety in the Classroom (International OCD Foundation, nd) suggests the following steps:
- Taking students’ concerns seriously
- Offering validation and acceptance
- Avoiding shaming
- Not calling out students in front of the whole class
- Encouraging students to talk about their struggles
- Developing a game plan
- Being mindful about one’s communication.
Teachers might want to set up specific times and days during which students can contact them about their worries and consider which format (e.g. spoken face-to-face, written and added to a worry box) is most appropriate. In terms of climate change anxiety specifically, participating in collective climate action such as peer information groups or campaigns can help to lower students’ anxiety (Schwartz et al., 2022). A study with 300 university students found that those who were involved in peer group discussion groups or information campaigns coped better with their climate anxiety than those who were not involved in such activities. A sense of agency can help to reduce climate change anxiety. However, collective action such as recycling or turning the lights off were not enough to achieve that goal. Schools might want to reflect on how they can provide opportunities for students to get involved in meaningful climate action as a group to help address some of their worries and concerns.
While teachers play an important role in recognising and supporting students with mental health issues, they typically are not trained mental healthcare professionals (Muller and Goldenberg, 2020) and if teachers have concerns about students’ mental health, parents and mental healthcare professionals should be involved.
Children and young people live in a world where they are surrounded by stressful events and news which can negatively impact their mental health and wellbeing. While feelings of worry are normal and can sometimes be a trigger for positive change, overwhelming and persistent feelings of anxiety require the attention of trained healthcare professionals. Even though teachers are not typically trained to provide professional mental health support, they often represent the first point of call for students who are feeling anxious or worried, and can implement a number of strategies to create a supportive environment. If you want to learn more about strategies to support students’ mental health and wellbeing, the Chartered College of Teaching and ACAMH have created a suite of bitesize online learning units which present evidence-informed approaches to supporting students with a range of mental health issues in your classroom. These are free for members to access. And as we have identified that talking is a crucial part of addressing children’s feelings of anxiety, we are proud to be working with ITV and YoungMinds to support a campaign to encourage all children to take part in a homework task where they talk about what’s on their mind – you can find out more on the opposite page.