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Climate change in the context of mental health

by Callie Giaccone September 3, 2019
Climate change in the context of mental health

As an avid consumer of media, the knot in my stomach continues to tighten every time I see “climate change” in a headline.

There seems to be one heartbreaking news story after another, whether it is the fires in the Amazon or the floods in Sudan. This makes me think: I’m not the only millennial with a metal straw, reusable grocery bag, and a deep fear at the back of my mind regarding the doom of our planet, right?

I wish I could say that every news headline made me pick up a picket sign, donate to the World Wildlife Fund, and compel me to eat a vegan diet – but often it just makes me feel like a sack of potatoes. So if I care ‘so deeply’ about the environment, why is my anxiety not motivating me to do anything about it?

In hopes of validating my own anxious thoughts, I started doing some research and I found that I’m not alone in my woes. In fact, this is not a new development by any sort. According to LiveScience.com, feeling desperate and helpless when it comes to environmental issues is a common psychological disorder called “eco-anxiety.” The American Psychological Association explains that this anxiety focuses on the feeling of doom and a chronic fear regarding environmental problems.

Thomas Doherty, a clinical psychologist in Portland Oregon, explained to LiveScience.com that people are not taught how to talk about the climate issue.

“Up to a certain point, arousal — how alert or worried you feel — leads people to take action and perform better, “ said Doherty. “But overly high levels of anxiety can become paralyzing.”

As Doherty said, anxiety can cause avoidance. For me personally, I often shut down the conversation about climate change because on a global scale it feels like there is nothing I can do to help.

Susan Clayton, one of the lead authors of a climate-change guide by the American Psychological Association, told CNN that our human tendencies towards avoiding conflict and to feel fear, helplessness, and resignation in response to climate change is growing. She continued by explaining that this is limiting citizens from developing “psychological resiliency,” meaning they are not able to handle and conceptualize the reality of climate change.

I am slowly learning that the more dialogue we create regarding our own panic and uneasiness, the less alone we will feel in the world of climate anxiety.

“Treating climate anxiety in children is very similar to treating general anxiety,” said Rhonda Matters, a Child Psychologist in PEI, to CBC – she stated that acknowledging the anxiety goes a long way.

In an interview with CNN, Wendy Petersen Boring, a professor from Yale University, has said she has expanded her climate anxiety curriculum from one week of lessons, to two full courses. She now addresses the emotional and psychological toll of activism in 2019 with greater depth, as we continue to uncover the urgency of the situation.

I also think it is irresponsible to talk about climate change without talking about privilege. Although I’m aware this issue affects us all, I have to acknowledge my avoidant anxiety as not only an issue I have to actively work on, but also as a privilege. My socio-economic environment has protected me from many repercussions that other countries, cities and neighbourhoods are dealing with on a direct and daily basis. I am also privileged to live in a country with news outlets sharing truths about the state of our environment.

Well, as cliche as it sounds, “knowledge is power,” but learning how to cope with our own discomfort is also power. I must continue to voice my anxieties in the hopes they will lead to fruitful discussions with others, but most importantly I must stay aware and informed. As a society, we are blocked by the immensity of the situation. We need to continue to learn how to approach this issue in a productive and sustainable way. Perhaps Susan Clayton said it best, “We can’t just curl up in a ball and wait for the end of the world.”


Graphic by Victoria Blair

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