Eco-anxiety in Finland: A tale of a national awakening

(June 2019)

Numerous Finns have realized that they are not alone in their anxiety about the global environmental crisis. In the last 18 months, a small nation of five million people has started a national discussion about eco-anxiety. Peer support groups are being formed, educators are starting to be trained to encounter these feelings, and a project aims to develop skills in the social and health sector to alleviate difficult forms of eco-anxiety. Alongside these events, social conflicts have also intensified, writes Dr. Panu Pihkala, a researcher in multidisciplinary environmental studies and author whose work focuses on these developments.

The word ‘ympäristöahdistus’ is a mouthful –even for a native Finnish speaker; but back in 2017, you hardly ever heard the word for ‘eco-anxiety’ in Finland. A few pioneers had addressed the psychological impacts of climate change since 2007, but this remained mostly unrecognized. The devious mechanism of “socially constructed silence” about eco-anxiety affected Finns as everyone else. (Sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard has become famous for her treatment of the phenomenon in Norway; see her Living in Denial from 2011).

In October 2017, two books about the ecological and climate crisis came out in Finland and gained a lot of attention. Hyvän sään aikana (ed. Hanna Nikkanen), which received much media coverage and several awards, included a chapter on the topic of emotions and climate change. I also contributed a book Päin helvettiä?, concentrating on eco-anxiety and hope. The biggest newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, ran a 3-page story about the issues I raised and this helped to spark nation-wide interest.

In the following winter, the authors of these books were featured in numerous interviews in television, radio, and print media. Workshops were led, articles were published. Journalists, educators and psychologists started to talk about the subject. A support group for students with climate anxiety was established in a technical university in Helsinki, Aalto University, by psychologist Sanni Saarimäki and a university pastor, Anu Morikawa. Young people commented that they felt very relieved that eco-anxiety, a phenomenon which they recognized and now had a word for, was starting to be discussed in the public space.

Then came summer 2018 with a record-setting heatwave in the Nordic countries and forest fires across wide swaths of Sweden, Finland’s neighbor. Extreme weather events had started to build in the 2000s; still, most people chose not to fully engage with the climate crisis – until it came to their back door.

After the heatwaves, in the autumn came the latest IPCC report, which warned of disastrous climate change and made demands for swift action. The Finnish media covered the report extensively – and this time it did not go away. These concerns famously found expression in the actions of Swedish student Greta Thunberg, founder of the Climate School Strike movement, into which many Finns joined. These events seemed to wake the Finnish people up to the reality of climate change. There were large demonstrations, climate anxiety became a hot topic in media, and various organizations and businesses started much more ambitious climate programs. The national Finnish language research center picked “Climate anxiety” as its “new word of the month” in October 2018. Political parties and much of the voting public framed the Parliamentary election of March 2019 as a “climate election”.

Backlash followed. While climate-minded parties and candidates increased their appeal, so did the right-wing candidates who disavowed climate action. Mostly, what was seen was so-called policy denial: climate change itself was not denied, but it was argued that Finns were such a small nation that it was not reasonable to do much. For the first time in Finnish history, identity politics were constructed also around climate anxiety, with some toxic masculinity expressed towards “those feminine weaklings who can’t bear climate change”. Young peoples’ climate strikes met with mixed responses ranging from disavowal to support.

Here in Finland this spring, there is more research about eco-anxiety conjoined with efforts to build more support for coping. Polling shows the majority of Finns are “very” or “severely” concerned about climate change. And for the first time, those reporting actual eco-anxiety – children and youth, young adults, parents, grandparents– now also includes business executives and highly educated experts. As the severity of the climate crisis sinks in, it is leading to more action and more open expression of anxiety.

Eco-anxiety sufferers are forming peer groups, with single events and meetings proving to be more popular than longer duration groups: why is this?  People seem to fear stigmatization, asking themselves: “Am I really so eco-anxious that I need to go into a longer discussion group?”. Organizations focusing on the mental health and well-being of young people, such as Nyyti (student welfare) and the Finnish Association for Mental Health (FAMH), have turned their attention to eco-anxiety and are developing more supports. FAMH also commissioned me to do a new report about climate anxiety and international experiences in its alleviation (published 4th June 2019). Environmental educators have picked up the theme and there are initiatives to support those who work daily with environmental matters, such as conservationists. Artists have produced many creative reflections and also participatory workshops.

Ongoing research is conducted about the various emotions that people have as regards the ecological crisis. Results of a preliminary study by Nyyti (538 responses) tell of strong feelings of frustration (71,3%), a desire to work for change (59,2%), grief (52,4%), feeling inadequate (52,8%) or powerless (51,8%), and anger (44%). Anxiety (43,6%) and fear (40,2%) were also common. Another study is underway by Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund.

Thus, in Summer 2019, eco-anxiety has risen to the top of national consciousness here in Finland. Some resist it, while many others, particularly the young, have claimed it as their own. Many organizations promote problem-focused coping, often by working for social and political change. In addition, my work, and that of some psychologists and mental health organizations focuses on the importance of emotion-focused coping and meaning-focused coping. As the tide of bad news swells about the ecological crisis, emotional and existential resilience will be in high demand. Peer support certainly helps, but there is still a lot of work to do in setting up “safe spaces” where we can share our emotions about the existential crisis we face. Eco-anxiety has brought about a national awakening in Finland; it will be interesting to follow what forms of action and resilience result.


Links

Finnish Association for Mental Health: https://mieli.fi/en


(Thanks to Derek Rasmussen for observations.)

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