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Education: Eco-calm in a cup of cappuccino

10 June 2022

Climate cafés help students with eco-anxiety, Christine Miles finds

Norfolk and Waveney Mind

At a climate-café practice run, at the University of East Anglia, Siddharth Panicker (right) expresses his feelings about nature and biodiversity, with (from left) Azza Dirar; the sUStain project co-ordinator, Caroline Fernandez; Parima Shah; and Rachel Hurst

At a climate-café practice run, at the University of East Anglia, Siddharth Panicker (right) expresses his feelings about nature and biodiversity, wit...

A PROJECT has been launched to address eco-anxiety among students at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The project offers them the chance to get together at regular climate cafés to talk about their thoughts and fears about the environmental crisis.

Later this year, students will also be offered a seven-week mindfulness course to help develop their emotional resilience in response to climate change.

The project, run by the mental-health charity Norfolk and Waveney Mind, in conjunction with UEA and the Climate Psychology Alliance, developed after students started contacting Mind because they were “feeling very anxious about the future . . . In fact, making the decision not to have children, because they thought that there was no future for them,” a project co-ordinator for Mind, Caroline Fernandez, says.

It is believed to be the first such project in a university setting, and has enlisted the support of student volunteers, who are being trained to facilitate the cafés.

Parima Shah, aged 21, who is in her first year of a B.Sc. in natural science, attended the first climate café, last month. She says: “Students were encouraged to start talking by picking up a natural object that resonated with them, introducing themselves; sharing what had brought them there, how they were feeling, and how the object they had picked up made them feel.

“I picked up a block of wood, and said it made me feel angry, because it reminds me of all the trees that are cut down: deforestation. . . Building from that introduction, we talked about [what] resonated with us that other people had spoken about.”

Ms Shah is vegan, avoids single-use material, and is as conscious as possible on everything from “skincare, décor, houseware, and things like laundry detergent”, she says.

“The big-scale impacts on climate change are from industries that don’t seem to be making much of a change, and it feels like it’s down to us, but [that] what we’re doing isn’t enough. . . My anxiety comes from conflicting emotions of wanting to do something, but not knowing . . . if what I’m doing is making any difference, because all you hear is that it’s getting worse.

“It’s nice not to feel so lonely and isolated in this situation, and that you’re the only one who cares, because there are other people, and you’re talking about it, and expressing your worries and emotions . . . and as a community finding out what we can do working together, but not putting too much pressure on that.”


MS FERNANDEZ says that the aim of the climate cafés, adapted from the death-café model, is not necessarily to turn participants into activists, but to create safe spaces to discuss with others shared feelings.

“It can be very worrying that other people aren’t concerned about it as well, and it can be very overwhelming; so we’re having these events to say you’re not alone,” she says. “[It’s about] acknowledging those feelings, and saying there are some tools that we can offer to help with that.

“We don’t need to tell people: ‘You need to do this; join this.’ They get told that, anyway. We’re just offering a bit of reprieve.”

Two of the participants said that they felt “lighter” after the climate café. One person felt “hugged”.

Azza Dirar, a final year Ph.D. student in the School of International Development, says: “As someone who has suffered eco-anxiety myself, I found the [climate café] spaces really helpful.

“It’s like a facilitated conversation. . . There’s cake and coffee and tea; so it’s trying to create an atmosphere where people can open up. It’s a relief. There are a lot of parallels in what people feel. You hear your own words being spoken by someone else, often, in the group.”

Ms Dirar, like Ms Shah, has volunteered to train as a climate-café student co-facilitator. In addition, Ms Dirar has signed up to help to develop the student mindfulness course.

“The plan is to have a course in October at the university for students, that some of them have helped to co-design, based on the book Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone,” Ms Fernandez explains.

Ms Dirar came across another Joanna Macy book, Coming Back to Life, when she was struggling with her own eco-despair. “It coincided with an environmental-justice conference I was attending. . . I was listening to these talks of talks of crisis after crisis after crisis . . . feeling like it was completely futile. I was crying a lot. I thought I was going crazy.

“My supervisors recommended therapists to me. They were really worried about my mental health; I wasn’t able to manage my responsibilities at that time. But then I found the book, and I shared it with them, and said: ‘This is great. It has an answer for what I’m feeling.’”


ACTIVE HOPE suggests that there are three emotional responses to climate anxiety which people can make: “Business as usual; complete extinction; active hope — that we’ve got to do the best we can ourselves, and that we’re more than the sum of our individual parts,” Ms Fernandez says.

“We can resource ourselves to increase our emotional resilience, and keep a helpful and engaged perspective on the crisis.”

Ms Dirar says: “I have a lot of compassion for people that seem like they don’t care. It’s just because it’s too much: it’s too much to deal with. Like, how do you deal with it? [This is] giving people the tools and space to know how to navigate it . . . and that’s what I want to do: to face this mess without going completely crazy.”

In addition to the climate cafés and the mindfulness course, there will also be events based at the university “to normalise the concerns, because being anxious about the climate crisis is a normal response to something that is anxiety-provoking. It’s not an individual mental-health issue,” Ms Fernandez says.

The work at UEA comes under the umbrella of a wider year-long initiative, sUStain, which is working to address climate anxiety with the general public in Norwich, and with people in north Norfolk who are already “experiencing coastal erosion and extreme weather events, and . . . are really isolated as well”, Ms Fernandez says.

Since the launch of the climate café last month, another university has been in contact, interested in replicating the model.


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