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Students say climate change impacts their mental wellbeing

Student Minds and UPP Foundation Publish Climate Change and Student Mental Health Report

Student Minds and the UPP Foundation are pleased to announce the release of their newest report, Climate Change and Student Mental Health. This report is the latest in a series of our projects supported by the UPP Foundation as part of their ongoing commitment to student mental health and wellbeing. 

Uniting two of the most pressing challenges facing the higher education sector, the report explores questions of curriculum design, leadership, behaviour changes, the impact on specific student groups, the role of government and higher education institutions (HEIs), and more. The findings are based on a self-selected survey of students, and semi-structured student focus groups. 

Selected findings include:

  • 71% of student respondents were quite or very concerned about climate change, while 68% were quite or very concerned about the impact on them personally.
  • 90% of students said climate change impacted their mental health and wellbeing in the preceding four weeks. The most commonly reported impacts were:
    • Frustration and anger due to climate change denial (40%)
    • Frustration and anger that not enough is being done to address climate change (37%)
    • Anxiety about the impact of climate change on future generations (37%)
  • The majority (53%) of students wanted to learn about sustainability in their curriculum, while only 20% already had. Of that 20%, the majority reported experiencing negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours afterward.
  • 20% of students reported “often or always” having positive conversations about climate change in the preceding four weeks, while 15% often or always helped somebody else limit their contributions to climate change.
  • Students widely expressed a desire to make a positive contribution to tackling climate change but often felt like they didn’t know where to start. 
  • Students expressed significant concerns about the impacts of climate change, climate change inaction, and interventions to address climate change, on specific student groups, including international students, disabled students, commuter students, and students from a lower socio-economic background.
  • Students in our focus groups demonstrated a holistic, interdisciplinary mindset towards tackling climate change, seeking to embed sustainability in their studies and career regardless of field, and exploring how that, in turn, could affect their mental wellbeing.
  • Students believe their universities and the government should focus on energy and recycling over measures to tax or ban meat on campus. For example:
    • 79% believe the UK government should invest in renewable energy sources to address climate change, with protecting green spaces (72%) and tackling river and sea pollution (72%) also scoring highly. But only 18% agree with taxing meat products and fewer still (14%) agree with taxing other animal products. 
    • 78% believe universities should create recycling hubs on campus and 76% say they should generate renewable energy but only 12% say they should stop serving meat on university locations. 

In recent years, increasing attention has been given to the relationship between climate change and mental health in the general population and in young people. Despite this, there is a limited body of evidence exploring this connection for students in UK higher education. More needs to be done.

Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation, said: “This fascinating report illustrates the need for universities to offer students practical and constructive ways for them to tackle climate change and wider environmental issues – not only for the good of the planet – but for their own wellbeing too.

“While a lot more research is required looking at the relationship between climate change and mental health, we hope the report sparks an important debate in the sector” 

Rosie Tressler OBE, Chief Executive Officer at Student Minds, said: “Our vision is that this report is among the first in a growing body of research, establishing how climate change impacts students mentally and emotionally. We identified this knowledge gap in 2022 and were thrilled that the UPP Foundation backed this work. The report is testimony to our shared strategic ambition to understand how global issues affect students. While there is much more to be done, we hope the report has highlighted areas for further inquiry, as well as providing policymakers and universities alike with a starting point to understand and address this connection on a grander scale.”

The report will be launched during a webinar hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) which will take place online on 18th October 2023, from 10:30am-11:30am. Find out more on their website.


Our methodology in brief

This research was conducted through a mixed-methods approach, comprising a literature review, a quantitative survey and semi-structured focus group interviews. Eligibility criteria were that participants were current students enrolled at a UK higher education institution, studying within any academic field at any level of study. We had 153 complete survey responses (taking place in February-March 2023) and twelve focus group participants (taking place in December 2022). Participation was incentivised with entry to a draw for shopping vouchers for survey participants and guaranteed voucher rewards for focus group participants.

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