Eco-anxiety: the teacher’s perspective

In our first blog for #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, we hear from Neeki Armani who is currently a Science Teacher in London and soon-to-be MSc Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education student at the University of Edinburgh. 

She discusses the realities of being responsible for educating children about climate change and the toll that takes on both her and their mental health. 

Being the ‘hippy’ teacher in the science department, I usually get the stereotypical comments about hemp, composting and tie-dye. In reality, I’m more the kind of person who routinely brings her reusable water bottle to staff meetings and donates old textbooks instead of chucking them.

Honestly, I started my sustainability journey to save cash as a skint student and it really helped me take a step up from the standard pot noodle diet. So, I’ve kept plodding along on the sustainable path, saving money and feeling a little bit less of a burden to the Earth along the way. Sure, my boyfriend sometimes laughs when I whip out my spork for the date night gelato, but I can handle that.

Over time as the climate crisis has become more ‘mainstream’ (thanks Blue Planet) people have noticed my odd little reusable swaps and tell me proudly about how they were slurping cocktails with their new metal straws or started using a shampoo bar (and walking around smelling like Lush).

Recently a colleague showed the BBC documentary ‘Climate Change: The Facts’ to his tutor group. Impressed, I followed suit. Shortly after I overheard a disillusioning conversation (tip: never attempt to have a private conversation in a school – the walls have ears). Turns out, the brother of one of his tutor group had been sent to tell him that his little sister had really taken the documentary to heart and was stressing about the state of the climate. He asked the teacher to tell her that “it will all be okay”, and that “it’s not that bad”. It went quiet…. and then he responded: “But it’s NOT okay and it IS that bad!”. Sure, that might not have been the ideal interaction, there was definitely a ‘teachable moment’ in there but I doubt I could have come up with anything better on the spot. We retreated to the staffroom to discuss this over snacks.

We were so amazed that a parent would want to protect their child so much that they’d ask the teacher to unteach what he’d shared. I was initially concerned that this year 7 was struggling with the weight of the world on her shoulders after just one documentary (but slightly pleased it had actually made a dent in her world of Fortnite and TikTok), and secondly, surprised that her brother was happy to pretend it wasn’t true (I guess he put it in the Santa and Tooth Fairy category).

I think we’d forgotten that not all the students were caught up in the very globally aware grown-up bubble we were in. The one where we are used to facing cold, hard truths and dealing with the stress it caused us just like we do with the stress of our daily jobs. Stress which is helpful when attempting to send those textbooks anywhere but landfill without spending a fortune. It’s a hard thing to do, even for adults, and the kids as young as eleven that we’re teaching these vital facts to were struggling to do it. Last week I heard there was a word for this awful feeling that is apparently pretty common: Eco-anxiety.

Although it’s true that ‘the truth hurts’, it’s my job to make it hurt less. Feeling guilty for opening the door to any kind of anxiety in my students, I decided I needed to change tack. I now regularly promote discussion of the ways we can make a difference as individuals, and I share the news of huge leaps of progress in the global movement towards sustainability. I also share the small victories, like when their English teacher began the initiative to recycle crisp packets, or their Maths teacher getting a reusable coffee cup.

Noticing the small improvements happening around me has helped me get through my own eco-anxiety, and I believe it’s making a difference. My students are starting to tell me of the small changes they’ve made at home (seems like ‘pester power’ has far better uses than toy marketing) and I can see them beaming with pride as I announce them to the class. When I’m also struggling to stay positive in a world of people who just don’t seem to care enough, I’ve realised I should lead by example, both for my students’ mental health and mine.

It’s not just children though. Within the ‘zero-waste’ groups I follow, there tends to be a bit of a dark shadow to every post. The odd critical comment here and there pointing out everything an individual isn’t doing as opposed to supporting what they are trying to change. Although it frustrates me, I don’t blame these commenters. It’s coming from the same place as that over-protective brother just trying to make his sister feel better about the state of the world.

This is eco-anxiety shining through, and people show it in different ways, from closing their eyes and ignoring it, to becoming militant about enforcing good eco-practices. As with everything, the extreme responses are always the least useful ones, and to reduce this eco-anxiety we have to find a way of changing the narrative to make sure we stay supportive of each other in the steps we are taking in the right direction – no matter how small. There was a beautiful Facebook post recently which I think embodies the attitude I want to promote, to make eco-anxiety into a global movement of eco-progress.

To keep the movement growing we need to spread ideas and support rather than just give the scary facts (as true as they may be) and let the anxiety take hold. It’s not too late, and the big companies are only going to take notice and change the status quo if the small individuals and our small steps unite. With or without a spork.

If you need support for your mental health whilst at University, please refer to this page for guidance.