A Look at the Intersection of Mental Health and the Climate Crisis:

A Barbados and Eastern Caribbean Youth Perspective

March 31, 2023

The climate crisis is experienced daily in the Eastern Caribbean by extension of every person being interlinked with the natural environment. This is frequently the result of the reality that among Small Island Developing States (SIDS), more recently repositioned as Large or Big Ocean States (BOS), there is no escaping acute hazards such as hurricanes and floods, as well as slower onset threats seen in ecosystem changes and loss of place and culture. These consequences of the Anthropocene, which also include sea level rise and coral reef decline, are our lived realities. In order to move forward in this context, it is imperative that current and future generations are equipped to both adapt to and mitigate climate change. To this end, the Accelerator Lab in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean has been exploring the mental and emotional connection youth have with the natural environment as it aims to surface and support holistic solutions.

Image Source: UNDP Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean / Zaimis Olmos. Hurricane Maria 2017, Colihut, Dominica

Learning about eco-anxiety, eco-grief and climate grief

Amidst the increase of dramatic floods, wildfires, droughts, natural disasters and more, eco–grief is on the rise. Based on research and reflections from the Climate Psychology Alliance, as the reality of the climate and biodiversity crises unfold, our mental health is increasingly at risk. Relatedly, terms such as eco-anxiety and eco-grief are becoming more common. Even without climate change, the global mental health situation is already challenging. Over the past few years, and more specifically during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some people believe that mental health appears to be receiving the attention and action it deserves. Building on WHO’s Mental health and climate change policy brief, between 1970 and 2020, climate – related hazards have increased, with 50% of all events occurring since 2003 and nearly 5 billion people having been affected. As climate change has increasingly stronger and longer-lasting impacts on people, this can directly and indirectly affect their mental health and psychosocial well-being.

In line with these global signals and trends on the linkages between mental health and climate, the Accelerator Lab set out to assess this space from a global standpoint. Our findings revealed that more broadly within BOS, an emerging line of work is beginning to appear on eco-anxiety, eco-grief and climate grief. For instance, in the Pacific, the University of Queensland human geography project worked with persons in the Cook Islands, Marshall Islands and Vanuatu on assessing experiences of grief and loss related to climate change, often the result of compromised health, culture and sense of place. When translating some of these findings at our local level in the Eastern Caribbean, we began to wonder if communities, and more specifically, youth, were experiencing similar sentiments due to their noted concern for the state of the environment and resulting evident activism in the space: turning  stories of doom and gloom, anxiety and grief into advocacy, hope and optimism.  

Understanding the Eastern Caribbean youth perspective on mental health and the environment 

To further gauge youth sentiment towards the environment, the Accelerator Lab collaborated with U-Report Barbados, an initiative of UNICEF and the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment in Barbados, on the 'Mental Health and Climate Change’ poll.  Launched last year in recognition of World Mental Health Day 2022 via an SMS polling tool, over 350+ youth in Barbados responded to the survey, which was the first of its kind from U-Report to link mental health with the natural environment. This comes at a critical point in time as 63% of the Caribbean population is under 30, resulting in important connections between youth perceptions of the environment and emerging job markets and skills in the blue-green Future of Work (FOW).

Here’s what we learnt: Out of 378 respondents, over half were concerned or very concerned about the current state of the natural environment. When asked about concerns on the future state of the environment, numbers greatly increased, with 93% of all respondents being at least somewhat concerned. As we delved deeper into our analysis of the poll’s results, most respondents in the 35+ category selected “All of the above” (80%) when identifying the impacts of climate change they were most anxious about experiencing, including beach erosion, diseases and flooding. Among younger groups, however, intense hurricanes and storms ranked highest alongside droughts and water shortages.  In trying to understand some of these potential signals, many thoughts come to mind: Is this because some impacts of climate change are more visible than others? Are youth perhaps more directly influenced by images of storms, hurricanes and droughts seen through social media? 

Image Source: U-Report & UNDP Accelerator Lab in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Youth Views on the Environment and Mental Health (Report). Results, 2022.

From climate anxiety to wellness and optimism

On the flip slide, we were also curious to learn of the positive impacts of a healthy environment on mental well-being through interactions with nature. The poll showed that in addition to the vast majority of youth sharing that interactions with the natural environment have positive impacts on their mental health (81%), individuals were also 30% more certain about the positive impacts the environment has on their mental states as opposed to when drawing connections with negative impacts. What does this reveal? From a behavioral change standpoint, this may suggest that despite resounding climate anxiety, youth are still maintaining positive psychosocial relations with nature, translating into the potential for youth-led climate action driven by an affinity for the blue and green. Interestingly, over 60% of respondents selected that they have not considered the link between the impacts of climate change and mental health, suggesting that this is nascent territory worthy of greater investigation.

Image Source: U-Report & UNDP Accelerator Lab in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Youth Views on the Environment and Mental Health (Report). Results, 2022.

Based on the preliminary findings of the introductory poll, this starts to paint a picture of how youth in Barbados are conceiving the environment and how climate change may be impacting their mental health, both for good and bad. Overall, what is undeniable is the passion youth in the Eastern Caribbean have for nature which, might be underpinned by concerns about the environment as well as deeper emotional connections to its role as a source of wellness.

What’s next? At the intersection of where mental health and the climate crisis meet 

Although there are many gaps in understanding the relationships between climate change and mental health, current knowledge and research on these connections have clustered primarily in the emergency and disaster management field in the context of extreme weather events. As knowledge on the topic grows, expanding the focus beyond this to better understand emerging concepts on the mental health impacts of climate change will be useful.

World Health Organization, 2022. Mental health and climate change: policy brief

Turning doom and gloom, anxiety and grief into advocacy, activism, hope and optimism

Moving forward, as we try to further research this emerging topic and its related signals that are starting to surface on the intersections between the climate outlook and mental well – being in the Eastern Caribbean, as well as across BOS throughout the world, here are some of the learning and research questions we are asking and aim to probe on further:

  1.  Is there a link to the FOW? What emerging job markets and skills in the blue-green space may be in demand to adapt to and mitigate climate change? Can eco-anxiety transform the field of psychology? 

  2. Could eco-anxiety be the surface – level analysis of what is ultimately a fractured relationship between people and planet? 

  3. Ocean and climate optimism stories: adding to initial results on the strong connection between wellbeing, the ocean and climate among youth, how can blue and green spaces positively impact our mental and emotional wellbeing?  

  4. When people hear positive climate and ocean stories, are they more inclined to act in a way that respects nature? On the other hand, if people are hearing doom and gloom climate stories, are they less likely to take climate action due to climate apathy?

  5. As we begin to explore collaboration with indigenous peoples such as the Kalinago in the Commonwealth of Dominica, we believe that we can learn from and with them as stewards of the Earth. Due to their historic experience and holistic perspective of people - planet relationships, being environmentally responsible is their way of life. Following discussion with UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner, during the LIFEathon this past February, we are curious to explore the important role that indigenous peoples can play in renewing our balance and relationship with nature.

In October 2021, when access to a healthy environment was declared a UN human right, a spotlight was placed on the connection between planet and people. Building on this powerful association between humans and nature, it is clear to us that there are strong intersections between climate change and mental health, and that climate action must be taken in order to protect our psychosocial states of mind. 

We encourage readers to collaborate with the Accelerator Lab on our path to discover, explore and spark exchanges on climate and ocean apathy, disempowerment and grief, but also on the flip side of hope with insights and stories of climate and #oceanoptimism as we seek to support making climate adaptation just. 


Written by Nikola Simpson and Jordanna Tennebaum, UNDP Accelerator Lab in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean