November 7, 2019
As the climate crisis accelerates, so does the strain on our mental health.
The odds are good that if you pay any attention to the news or social media, you’ve seen an increase in coverage of environmental topics over the last couple of years, and even more so in the last few months. Thanks to the efforts of climate scientists and activists, climate change is finally becoming a larger part of our national and global discourse. Just this September, the world saw a massive wave of global climate strikes; the Guardian reported that at least 6 million protestors took to the streets demanding action. Still, the topic is far from being discussed as urgently as the scientific research suggests it should be. And too often, important parts of the story are ignored. When we talk about climate change, we tend to focus on the physical effects it will have on both our natural habitat and our species’ survival. These are, of course, the most pressing consequences of a changing environment. But we should also be discussing the effects that it is having on our mental health.
Besides covering the work of activists, recent environmental news has focused on an alarming number of ecological disasters, including everything from wildfires, floods and hurricanes, to the more gradual crises of melting glaciers and changing temperatures. While the scientific consensus about the pressing reality of human-caused climate change has been hovering steadily at 97% for years according to NASA, the evidence backing it up builds every day. More people have taken to referring to the process as “the climate crisis,” because climate change simply isn’t a strong enough term anymore. With a problem of such a scale on our hands, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess that mental health is also impacted. New types of anxiety and depression have come out of this crisis, though individual responses vary from person to person.
One of the responses to climate change we have seen a remarkable amount of in the U.S., despite how much scientific evidence there is backing up the reality, is denial. When we feel a sense of cognitive dissonance over our daily actions—which happens when we do things like choose to travel by plane, even if we know it’s one of the worst contributors of carbon dioxide gas—we often turn to denial or avoidance to resolve the internal conflict. Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes found surprising evidence of this habit when he analyzed public opinion polls regarding climate change over the last 30 years. He found that the more certain the scientific evidence of a crisis becomes, the less concerned the public feels about the issue.
These findings make sense from a psychological standpoint. After all, what difference can one person make when confronted with such a complex and terrifying issue? That kind of responsibility is enough to induce anxiety in even the most determined of us. According to sources like the American Psychological Association (APA), denial is one of several common responses to this kind of anxiety, along with other coping methods like conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness and resignation.
On the other side, some people choose to take action. Berelian Karimian is a student at Okemos High School who recently moved to the Lansing area from New Orleans, where she saw the results of climate change even more clearly. For Berelian, anxiety about the future of the planet is familiar; in particular, she says that watching videos and speeches about the climate crisis often cause her anxiety, as well as frustration over the situation she and others her age have had forced upon them.
“We shouldn’t have to think about this stuff,” Karimian said. “This shouldn’t be a problem, but it is.” She chooses to channel those anxieties into positive action—participating in events like the global climate strike and even organizing rallies and school strikes of her own.
As the climate crisis accelerates, more people are falling into some combination of these responses. But since the topic of climate anxiety has only recently become part of a more public conversation, there’s still a lot to be understood about it. One of the most influential pieces of research on the subject to date comes from the APA, published just two years ago. In association with two environmental organizations, the APA released a 2017 report titled “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate.” The report presents research surrounding the effects of climate change on our physical and psychological health, and offers recommendations for coping with this threat as individuals and communities.
Before this report, most of the research on the impact climate change has on health had focused on physical health effects; the APA report, however, notes that not only can those physical effects impact mental health, but mental health effects also exist as a separate, direct result of climate change. In cases where people have had to deal with the consequences of extreme weather—whether through a natural disaster or the more gradual results of changing weather and rising seas—implications for mental health can be serious. Those who have experienced loss of home, traditions, and culture through these types of environmental changes face the worst potential for acute and chronic mental health effects, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, and higher rates of aggression and violence.
For those who haven’t seen the most drastic effects in their own lives, but are becoming aware of the rapidly approaching threat of climate change, fear for the future is enough of an issue to produce its own kind of anxiety. In a Yale survey from December 2018, researchers found that Americans
are growing increasingly worried about the climate crisis. The percentage of Americans who rank as “alarmed,” those who are most concerned and most motivated to do something about climate change, rose to 29% last year, double what it was five years ago. Six in 10 Americans are now “alarmed” or “concerned” about global warming, while the percentage of those who are “doubtful” or “dismissive” decreased to 9% for each category. This growing trend of concern over global warming has given rise to a new psychological disorder—ecoanxiety, a term coined a decade ago and popularized in the last couple years. Though few people know the word yet, many are already familiar with the feeling it captures. When I asked an MSU freshman at the first climate strike of September if she’d heard of the term ecoanxiety, she responded without hesitation.“Oh yeah, I have that.” Other young people at the event who never heard the term identified just as easily with its meaning.
Psychology Today acknowledges ecoanxiety in an article from 2018, defining it as a “fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis.” This worry can be divided into two categories according to the APA: worry about specific impending natural disasters or a broader feeling of anxiety about the future our planet is facing. The latter is increasingly common, especially among younger generations who are more likely to understand the threat posed by climate change and will eventually have to face it themselves.
It’s also very important to note that the impacts of climate change and the challenge it poses to mental health are not experienced equally by all groups—and there’s a deeper divide than just a generational one. The APA report emphasizes that some groups are much more vulnerable to the physical and psychological effects of climate change, including indigenous communities, low-income groups, communities of color, and people with disabilities. This divide occurs within countries such as the United States, as well as across borders. Countries with fewer resources and those which rely more heavily on a relationship with the natural environment are at a greater risk than many developed Western nations, despite the fact that it’s countries like ours that are contributing the most carbon emissions to the atmosphere. The psychological distance that results from this divide is part of the reason that the majority of us are still not taking action; we imagine the effects of climate change as something that will impact others, in a different place, or far from now. If we’ve been privileged in our ability to avoid the worst effects of climate change up to this point in time, we don’t see the struggles of other far-away communities as indicative of a threat that will affect us, and we seem to have a lack of empathy for their fate in the meantime. Just as inequity has been identified as an important issue when speaking about mental health more broadly, it must also be taken
into account as we deal with the emerging psychological impacts of climate change.
The issue of ecoanxiety has arisen at a time when we’re researching and discussing mental health more than ever before. An APA report from 2018 identified stress levels and common stressors among Gen Z (ages 15-21) and compared them to other generations. They found that 58% of Gen Z was stressed about climate change, along with 51% of adults overall. The report concludes that this along with all of the other issues stressing Gen Z and older generations has resulted in adults across all generations feeling more stressed in general. Though younger generations are more willing to discuss mental health than those who came before them, the newer topics of ecoanxiety and climate grief are still so foreign to the majority of the general public that we continue to struggle to find ways to talk about them.
Part of the reason for this is that not everyone is thinking about climate change. For some, it’s because the issue has become politicized, and it doesn’t align with the rest of their ideological beliefs. Others simply don’t fully understand the gravity of the situation. Many still believe it won’t affect them personally in their lifetimes or are too overwhelmed by the science to feel like they can make a difference. Alexa Marsh, an environmental and sustainability studies major at Michigan State University, is the president of the Sustainable Spartans group on campus. Because of her chosen areas of study, she says the climate crisis is constantly on her mind.
“It’s all I think about now,” she said. “It consumes me.” That reality can get depressing, and she admits it’s very easy to get discouraged, especially when she sees so many people around her ignoring the issue for these reasons. “I don’t expect (climate change) to be on the forefront of everyone’s mind—everyone has something they’re passionate about. At the same time, it definitely should be on their minds more, because it will affect them more than they think it will.”
And the time in which people will be affected more directly by climate change is approaching quickly, as is the deadline for taking action: An oft-cited estimate from the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns that we need to come close to halving our carbon emissions by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of climate change. What’s more, there are many climate scientists and activists who don’t believe that even this goal is urgent enough. When placed within the context of such grim predictions and urgent warnings, the rise of ecoanxiety makes a lot of sense. Where that anxiety is channeled, however, makes all the difference. It can be hard to avoid hopelessness, avoidance, or denial, but that’s exactly what’s necessary in order to take desperately needed action for our future. For Alexa, her dedication to action is a matter of common sense. “How can I just give up? I still have a life to live, and I can’t just sit back and watch … I want to be the change.”
Alexa’s words echo the sentiments shared publicly by a growing number of young climate activists across the world: 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s school strikes inspired thousands worldwide to join; Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise movement, is leading the fight in the U.S. for the Green New Deal; Autumn Peltier has spent years fighting for water rights and now represents 40 First Nations communities across Canada. Alongside these activists, there are just as many young people making impacts in their local communities. I recently met dozens of teenagers at the climate strike in Lansing doing exactly this — most of them were still high schoolers, concerned about climate change but dedicated to making everyday impacts on their world.
Along with the people who are marching in the streets, those who are making conscious decisions to lead more sustainable lifestyles, such as riding a bike to work, reducing single-use plastic usage, and going vegan, are what MSU alumna Hannah Tizedes would call “everyday activists.” Hannah has long been interested in environmental issues and admits to feeling ecoanxiety on a daily basis. The question she repeatedly asks herself as a way of dealing with it is, “What have I done today to make a difference?” Though she admits it’s hard to believe that such small actions make a difference when such large-scale political and corporate change is needed, individual actions inspire others, and the effects grow. “You have to believe that you’re making a difference with every little action you’re taking,” Tizedes said. “Everyone in their own way has their own power to create change.”
Hannah’s belief in the power of such individual actions isn’t just the opinion of one optimistic person. Source after source in my research, including leading climate scientists, psychologists, and everyday people who are invested in this topic, all agreed that trying to live their own lives in a more eco-friendly way was one of the best ways to deal with individual ecoanxiety. As psychologist Nancy Prober summarizes it, “there is hope in action, and it gives our anxious energy a place to go.”
Of course, individual actions alone shouldn’t be mistaken for a complete solution to the climate crisis. Far from it. Rather, they’re a good start, and along with other actions of self-care can help lessen ecoanxiety and prevent paralyzing psychological responses from taking over.
Just as we’re beginning to speak more openly about the impacts of climate change on our world, we also need to begin speaking more openly about the implications it carries for our mental health. Only by sharing our struggles openly and working together to preserve our mental health in the face of this threat can we have the mental fortitude to continue fighting together for a livable future.
Katherine Stark is a senior studying professional writing and Spanish. Outside of class, she’s usually busy managing the Red Cedar Review or writing things for other assorted campus departments. In her free time, she enjoys both cooking and running,hobbies which she finds complement each other very well. Follow her on Instagram @stark.katherine and it will definitely not spam your feed, as she rarely remembers to post.