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Taking account of student experiences of eco-grief and eco-anxiety when incorporating sustainable development goals into teaching

22 November 2023

3 minutes to read

Taking account of student experiences of eco-grief and eco-anxiety when incorporating sustainable development goals into teaching

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated many changes in higher education, including a greater focus on online learning. However, another key trend has been growing efforts to incorporate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into university curricula. This reflects a wider recognition that higher education institutions have a crucial role to play in educating students about major global challenges like climate change.

However, teaching about issues like environmental sustainability can trigger difficult emotions like eco-anxiety or eco-grief in some students and staff. This needs to be acknowledged and handled carefully to avoid exacerbating mental health issues. This post outlines strategies for teaching the SDGs in a sensitive, constructive way that empowers and engages learners. The aim is to tap into learners’ passion for building a sustainable future, while also looking after their mental wellbeing.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The SDGs are 17 global goals adopted by all UN member states back in 2015. Each has specific targets to achieve by 2030. The aim is to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for everyone.

There are 169 detailed targets across the 17 SDGs covering social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. It’s a lot to get your head around!

Why Teach the SDGs in Higher Education?

SDG 4 focuses on quality education, which is key to achieving the other goals. Target 4.7 of the SDG is that by 2030, universities should ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development.

The cross-cutting competencies associated with the SDGs, like critical thinking and problem solving, also align with graduate attributes that many universities want to develop.

Each SDG has learning objectives that can be described in the cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioural domains – there are also indicative topics and pedagogical approaches for each. “Education for sustainable development is holistic and transformational education that addresses learning content and outcomes, pedagogy and the learning environment – it is not only about content”.

The Risks of Triggering Eco-Anxiety

A growing number of researchers are trying to better understand the emotions that people experience in response to climate change and how these emotions might impact on health and wellbeing in addition to how they relate to behaviour and sustainable actions. Many students are already worried about issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. Constant exposure to bleak news stories can exacerbate eco-anxiety. Feelings of helplessness and isolation can make matters worse.

Turning Anxiety into Positive Action

The trick is to frame sustainability challenges as big but solvable problems if we work together.

  • Highlight positive initiatives already underway and share stories of environmental progress.
  • Set students achievable individual goals like learning more or engaging with their local community.
  • Remind them the power of small actions when multiplied.
  • Allow class time for learners to process and discuss their feelings around climate anxiety. Just naming fears can help diffuse their power.

Creating Constructive Learning Environments

Consider the benefits and rationale for teaching about sustainability issues, but also acknowledge the emotional demands and potential mental health impacts.

  • Be transparent about learning objectives around the SDGs and create space for students to reflect on how it makes them feel.
  • Promote peer support and normalize feelings of eco-anxiety. They’re having a natural response!
  • Balance presenting problems with exploring solutions and reasons to be hopeful. Focus on empowering students to make a real difference.

The SDGs present a great opportunity to equip students with the mindset and capabilities to build a just, sustainable future. With care and sensitivity, universities can tap into learners’ passion while looking after their mental health.

This blog post was developed by Jo Sutherst, following an interview with Katherine Ashbulby and Julie Pepper.



Julie PepperKatherine Ashbulby
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