Greta Thunberg and our mental health

Inaction of authorities in the face of danger is enough to drive you crazy.

The truanting schoolgirl who a year ago spent every Friday demanding climate action outside the Swedish parliament is now living proof that young people can lead opinion on a global scale.

Aged just 16, Greta Thunberg is already a celebrity with a book to her name, No-one is too small to make a difference. Next year we’ll see another, co-authored with others in her family. Luckily for us all, she thinks celebrity is pure fluff.

She pursues her task of defending Earth’s life systems with intelligence, focus and knowledge. Her words are a tour-de-force. In simple, guileless, plain English, she shoves aside the qualifications always present in adult conversation and, with a child’s clear vision, cuts to the chase.

Reading the scientific reports about the devastating impact of human actions on our planet’s carbon cycle, Thunberg sticks resolutely to those findings and insists that authorities do likewise. When the US Congress sought her opinion she submitted a recent IPCC report and said simply, “Read it”.

Unable to fault her facts, critics have resorted to an alleged lack of “life experience”, the bad influence of adults around her, and name-calling (George Christensen MP came up with “Greta Whingeberg”). Such insults can be ignored, but not so claims about her “disturbed” mental state.

Briefly, Thunberg has an autism disorder that makes it harder to spot social cues and causes her to focus obsessively on a particular subject. Three years after learning about climate change in 2011, she fell into depression which caused her to stop eating and talking and to remain indoors.

Her extreme personal response to climate change is not surprising to health specialists. They have identified a widespread mental condition they call eco-anxiety, where once-healthy people are turning inward and disengaging over the state of the planet.

Expert advice is that you overcome such mental paralysis by doing the opposite. You turn outward, connect with others, and act to address your concerns. You might end up in something like Extinction Rebellion’s street protests, which whatever else is said about them can be mental therapy.

Thunberg drew strength from her autism with support from her parents, who encouraged her to think of her mental afflictions as “superpowers” (which given her rare gift for cutting through makes complete sense). Where people able to read social cues might have held back, she became an activist, and that lifted her out of depression.

Her story became known in countless homes and classrooms. Just as Thunberg learned from US students opposing gun violence, so has her example emboldened others to stand up, join together and demand that their governments do better. And feel better for doing it.

Thunberg is an exceptional human being, but her concerns are felt by millions. No-one can read what the scientific community says in the three most recent IPCC reports without being anxious about what is ahead and despairing at our continuing failure to curb emissions.

I know that because I’ve been there. Like countless people around the world I continue to spend time agonising over others’ apparent indifference to a growing threat. If that makes us all “disturbed” so be it, but it’s a perfectly natural reaction.

I feel the weight of the massive burden that my generation is passing on to young people, but how much more must they feel it? Young audiences I have spoken to over the years seem to expect guidance from me, but often I have come away feeling small and powerless.

The example of Thunberg and her family, and the growing youth movement that at once inspires her and draws inspiration from her, has changed that. Seeing young people step up and speak out where adults have not, I feel refreshed and re-motivated.

It’s true we should not fuel young people’s eco-anxiety by talking of planetary doom, because that is unsupported by science. But it’s little better to try to soothe their fears with talk of “hope” when our leaders refuse to open up to uncomfortable truths that our children are fully across.

Climate change is a matter for everybody, everywhere. People hit by climate extremes like drought and wildfire need practical help now, but they also need to hear and see their national community wrestling with root causes and long-term implications.

We face the stark reality of having to make major, permanent changes to the way we live. We desperately need a genuine dialogue to plan and implement the large-scale, coordinated, focused measures so badly needed. Instead we are getting obstruction, displacement activities, and silence. Our leaders are doing everything possible to avoid facing reality.

We have put thought and action into discrete compartments, but they’re inseparable. We can address both climate change and eco-anxiety by facing the truth and acting decisively together. Emerging generations and many others already know that. Now it’s up to those in charge.

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