Clinical psychologist Lucy McLean and journalist Shanti Mathias both attended last week’s climate protests. They explain how action to mitigate the climate crisis can also help improve mental health.
“I feel a low-grade panic at all times,” says Forest*, an Auckland high schooler. It’s a hot day in early autumn; Forest is standing in the shade of a tall tree, having left school early to get to the climate protest. They’ve been studying plastic pollution in their environmental studies class. “There’s a lack of acknowledgement and desire to change from the people who can make the biggest change – the corporations and the government. Their complete wilful ignorance is the most terrifying part of the climate crisis.”
Forest, like many people of all ages, finds that the reality of climate change has shaped their state of mind. The emotional link between a warming planet and wellbeing has been given a variety of names such as “solastalgia”, “eco-grief”, “eco-trauma” and “eco-anxiety”. Eco-anxiety, the most widely used of these terms, refers to a very broad range of emotional responses to the climate crisis. In general, eco-anxiety is used to refer to anticipatory distress about the unfolding climate crisis – the worry about how bad things are going to get.
Climate change is, unavoidably, a mental health issue. Appropriate responses to eco-anxiety – and all forms of climate-related distress – require us to see it as simultaneously political and personal.
“The messages around ‘living green,’ are often not helpful, because they’re so individualist – they say that if you purchase the right things, there’s a solution. But if you don’t have the money for that, it feels like there is nothing you can do,” says Silvia Purdie, a counsellor who is a member of OraTaiao, the New Zealand Climate and Health Council. The power to make sustainable decisions and respond to the climate crisis is also not distributed equally. An over-focus on individual climate action can distract from the systemic drivers of climate problems, creating a sense of hopelessness.
Inequality shapes who climate change affects first: many people around the world are not afforded the luxury of time and space to worry about future climate change, as the effects are already happening. Eco-anxiety is different from acute stress caused by directly experiencing adverse climate events, and different again from distress caused by having one’s life indirectly impacted by climate change. Losing your job in an orchard because climate change has caused smaller harvests might cause you distress, which is connected to the climate, but wouldn’t necessarily be categorised as eco-anxiety.
Being distressed by the climate crisis is a pretty normal response, meaning that how to treat its impact on individual wellbeing is debated. Eco-anxiety can manifest as severe and functionally-impairing symptoms such as Forest’s experience of chronic panic, or the low mood, thoughts of death and sleep disturbances reported by others. Responses to eco-anxiety should not undermine the very real drivers of this distress.
If the story you’ve been told about climate change makes you feel helpless and ashamed of your complicity in this shared crisis, the effect is isolating. “This adds to the hopelessness,” says Purdie.
Young people are particularly impacted by the psychological burden of anticipated climate change. Olivia*, one of the speakers for Fridays for Future at last week’s climate protest in Tāmaki Makaurau, has experienced this viscerally. In front of a crowd of thousands, she spoke about her sense of despair. The Spinoff talked to her as the climate protest wound down in Victoria Park. “The focus only on the present and future suffering created by a changing climate contributes to my individual helplessness”, she said.
As a counsellor, Purdie sees how climate distress feeds into her work too. “People come to counselling because they’ve had a relationship break up or they’re feeling low, and that’s the top of their minds, but not far underneath the surface is this static sense of threat, which undermines their sense of safety and ability to claim a good future.”
Instead of directing anger and sadness at the state of the planet inwards, collective action shifts narratives about individual responsibility to the collective, and to those who hold power. Providing opportunity for connection and mutual care, making the pursuit of a better future less lonely and more hopeful, is crucial. “Before I was involved in activism, I was very anxious,” Olivia says. “I’d stress about the future – I wouldn’t sleep.”
A focus on individual action alone means that people can end up in positions where they will both fail and feel even worse about failing. “It shouldn’t be that if you can’t be vegan you feel shit about yourself,” says Olivia.
Olivia sees the focus on individual responsibility as an intentional tactic to create hopelessness. “I think it’s the goal for those big polluting companies because if you blame individuals they’ll feel really anxious,” she says. “I found the best way to combat that was through activism and just doing some positive with that anxiety and now I feel a bit better.”
For Olivia, Forest, and others who are experiencing the impact of climate change on mental health, coherent climate policy that both mitigates climate change and adapts to its impact can help to lessen the emotional burden on individuals, provide a source of hope, lead to better health and mental health outcomes in the long run. All action has merit.
Sam*, another protester, thinks her climate distress would lessen if she felt like wider society took climate change as seriously as she does. “This last month, weather events have seriously disrupted my university… when you see the inaction it can be quite anxiety-inducing.” She’s started composting at her flat, and shopping at a low-waste store, but wants to see climate policy that takes “genuine action” at a broader scale, too.
“The five demands of the climate protest are a good place to start. Positive momentum by big organisations – governments, councils, universities, schools – will make a difference,” says Purdie. Olivia agrees. “There’s so much that’s possible – every facet of society needs to be adjusted to be sustainable. Every single policy is a win – but ending fossil fuel exploration would be a big one for me personally.”
Positive climate policy is positive mental health policy – and both have the ability to transform the lives of everyone who lives with climate-related distress. “Losing hope is probably the most damaging thing to the climate movement,” says Forest. Perhaps the best form of hope would be government and companies committing to action that would meet the targets set by the Paris agreement, which New Zealand is currently planning to pay other countries to do.
Young protesters like Forest want to focus on what is possible. “Improving our systems is a solution, improving mental health services is a solution – and it all feeds into each other.”
*Last names not used to protect young people’s privacy.