How is eco-stress affecting students?

Estimated reading time:
10 mins
Image: Freya Morris

MSc student, Raphaella Mascia, examines the unique challenges faced by students in Environment and Conservation, and the issues related to mental health, eco-stress, anxiety and grief.

Global extinction. Climate Change. Habitat Destruction. Climate Migration. Ecosystem Degradation. These are topics covered by many students studying in the field of conservation and the environment. Whether these students are undertaking courses in geography, economics, or biology, such issues carry a heavy weight, which has been shown to impact student mental health particularly.

In recent years, student mental health has come to the fore as educators and administrators have recognized the links between mental health, student well-being, and academic and life success.

What is climate stress?

In the past, the name to identify the anxiety—and sadness—associated with major environmental and climate issues, was eco- or climate-grief. But recently, psychologists have switched to recognizing this phenomenon as eco- or climate-stress, a more rounded and encapsulating term for all the emotions that fall under this umbrella.

Encounters with these emotions are highly personal and relate to one’s particular experiences with the environment. People’s experiences with environmental issues also vary across racial, geographic, socio-economic, and religious groups, which further contributes to the nuances, differences, and unequal experiences of eco-stress.

Researchers and educators have only just begun understanding and acting on eco-stress in schools and universities. Important questions—like whether eco-stress impacts certain fields differently or how undergraduates encounter eco-stress compared to graduate students—still need to be answered. But it’s clear that those in the fields of the environment and conservation are especially vulnerable as they deal with compounding and converging emergencies and crises. Could this mean that students studying a crisis are actually in a crisis of their own? Many students in these fields face broad challenges related to their studies and work. As Jamie Bolam, a current master’s student in the School of Geography and the Environment said:


‘I’m tired of the doom and gloom.’


But he also stressed that although the almost apocalyptic narratives taught through some environmental and conservation topics such as extinction, biodiversity loss, and habitat degradation to name a few—are present, as students, ‘it also depends on the narratives you feed into.’


A fellow master’s student, Shannon Ray, discussed emotions related to eco-stress:


‘I do feel despair and anger every day about the suffering and extermination of other animals and about the way it is brushed aside (especially by conservationists) as less important than human interests.’


Outside of Oxford, such serious and significant subjects continue to affect students and young people around the globe. In a notable study published in 2021, researchers surveyed thousands of young people, ages 16-25, from ten countries. They found that 84% of respondents were at least somewhat worried about climate change and that over 50% of respondents had experienced emotions, which could fall under the umbrella of eco-stress.

What can we do about it?

Beyond the somber narratives and topics, there’s another factor impacting student mental health in these fields: a lack of diverse and paying, work opportunities that allow them to make an impact on the environment. A limited ability to act can promote feelings of eco-stress while researchers have found that feelings of agency foster hope among students and children—hope being an essential counter to negative eco-emotions.

If students want to combat their eco-stress through action, the dearth of jobs which would enable them to do so—opportunities that would make them feel as if they are making positive changes—further contributes to emotions like hopelessness and despair. In an interview, Joss Carr, a current undergraduate in the School of Geography and the Environment, pointed out that student conservationists also have additional worries about internships and future career opportunities.

The lack of job and work prospects in this field ‘doesn’t fill you with hope,’ said Carr. A common prerequisite in the conservation field is doing unpaid work before getting hired, which also exacerbates inequality and lessens diversity in the field. Oxford DPhil alumn, Thomas Pienkowski, now a researcher at Imperial College also found this to be the case. At Oxford until 2022, Dr Pienkowski led the Life in Conservation project, which sought to understand connections between mental health and conservation.

Dr Pienkowski said:


‘The difficulty of finding jobs and paid opportunities in the conservation field could exacerbate other mental health issues for students. There is a link between impact and control which helps people to cope with the doom and gloom found within the field. Many conservationists who took part in the Life in Conservation study said that feeling like you are making a difference helped them cope with eco-distress.’


Finding balance in an unbalanced world

But even in the midst of these challenges, finding balance is necessary—a need emphasized by every person I spoke to. Such a balance should both respect and validate students’ mental health and emotions while also granting stamina and resiliency to support students who continue doing important environmental work. Jamie Bolam said:


‘All students have the right to disconnect from their work to achieve such a balance between studies and life.’


Another, lesser-discussed form of balance that could combat eco-stress occurs between individual and community involvement. Numerous studies have found that acting both on an individual and community levels could improve mental health outcomes for students concerned about the environment. As Shannon Ray said:


‘Our individual actions are absolutely crucial in building to the social tipping points that we desperately need to change norms… It’s easy to push responsibility onto people who have more power than us, but then those people or institutions do the same, and blame gets diverted endlessly.’


This speaks to one of Dr Pienkowski’s key findings on mental health in the conservation field, which was that those who are more satisfied with their individual contribution to the field have lower levels of psychological distress. ‘People need an effort-reward balance,’ he said. This may be more difficult for students who may feel that their studies or other work opportunities are not as impactful as they hope; yet as a framework, it provides a point from which to ask yourself, as an individual, how, when, and where to take action in a personally sustainable and supportive manner.

The role of a supportive community

Community is significant in improving mental health for students. Researchers conducting a review of eco-anxiety in children mentioned the key role of educators in improving eco-stress. Educators and administrators should take charge in providing important resources and creating such communities for students—spaces where students in the environmental and conservation fields can discuss their emotions and concerns freely. Students also can have an influential role in making a supportive community within their studies or fields too. Or, simply, as Joss Carr said:


‘There’s something to be said about just being in nature with people.’


Mental health is a complex subject, and eco-stress even more so as it has only just come to light in the last decade. Although we have much much further to go towards destigmatizing and understanding student mental health in the environmental and conservation field, we have a place to begin.

Image: Raphaella MasciaRaphaella Mascia is a School of Geography and the Environment Science Writer and graduate student studying for an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management.

How is eco-stress affecting students?

MSc student, Raphaella Mascia, examines the unique challenges faced by students in Environment and Conservation, and the issues related to mental health, eco-stress, anxiety and grief.