Mental Health and Climate Change: Turning Fear Into Action
It is Global Climate Strike Week, and climate change is heavily featured by news outlets and on social media. Globally, students are participating in climate strike walkouts to make their voices heard and urge those in power to take action against climate change. With the recent release of a new IPCC report and global news coverage of natural disasters ravaging the earth — from the burning of the Amazon rainforest to the recent destruction brought on by Hurricane Dorian — the devastating effects of climate change are heavily pervasive in our daily consciousness. Further, with authors like David Wallace-Wells arguing that “[climate change] is worse, much worse than you think,” and activists like Greta Thunberg imploring us to “to feel the fear [she] fear[s] every day,” these sobering messages can begin to weigh on us.
While it is fantastic that the detrimental realities of climate change are getting such widespread exposure, and while I feel grateful to see so much action and awareness happening around me, comprehending the dismal fate of the planet and of humanity at the hands of climate change can begin to take a toll on our mental health — I know that it does for myself, at least. Fear of this ongoing and imminent climate catastrophe was coined “eco-anxiety” by The American Psychological Association, and is a concept that I’ve been grappling with a lot recently. I have been giving a lot of consideration to eco-anxiety when it comes to being human in the age of climate collapse, and though I have found no fool-proof way to remedy it (and I want to emphasize that my approach is purely subjective) what I have found to be most effective is turning my this anxiety into action.
While eco-anxiety can feel paralyzing, combatting this fear by taking steps towards change has been, for me, very empowering. Working with The Green Medium and with climate activism groups and organizations in my area has allowed me to feel as though I am making an impact on lessening the effects of climate change. Attending global climate strike events this week and making my voice heard has been especially liberating. Additionally, making changes in my daily life to promote sustainability and reduce my ecological footprint has given me a feeling of control over my own contributions to the mark I leave on the planet. Finally, keeping myself educated on climate change news (depressing as this barrage of doomsday news may be), and reading up on the philosophy of climate change (I recommend Bringhurst and Zwicky’s Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Change) equips me with the knowledge I need to understand my place on a planet facing imminent climate collapse. In Learning to Die, author Jan Zwicky urges readers to approach the fatal future of climate change with a sense of courage and grace, citing Socratic philosophy to encourage readers to make the most of the time they have left. The perspectives offered in the book gave me a clearer vision of how to perceive my own existence in the face of climate change, and further lessened my fear and confusion of how to approach the horrors on the horizon of ecological collapse.
The grim reality of climate change can often feel suffocating, and it is common for those who are invested in climate change activism to take a crushing amount of responsibility for it. I am fully in support of action and awareness (I implore anyone reading this to continue creating change this week and beyond), and I also believe that looking out for our own mental health along the way is crucial. Further, I argue that the two can go hand in hand — for me, action alleviates anxiety! Of course, “action” is subjective based on ability and accessibility, so I want to emphasize that the ways in which we take action in an effort to combat climate change and simultaneously foster mental health are different on a person-to-person basis. While attending climate strikes and events is both empowering and accessible to some, it might not be possible for all. Act in a way which suits your needs, abilities, and comfort level, all while making an impact!
I have no answers as to how to avoid eco-anxiety entirely (in fact, I would argue it to be mostly unavoidable for those concerned about climate change), however I want to advocate for keeping the conversation going about not only climate change, but about how it makes us feel and what it means to be human under climate conditions which threaten to destroy human life. While we work to take care of the planet, let’s work to take care of ourselves, too.
In the spirit of keeping the conversation about mental health and climate change going, I would love to hear how others deal with eco-anxiety of their own! Any tips or ideas as to how to prevent the terror-inducing realities of climate change from mentally wearing us down? I want to hear them!
For further, more informed reading, check out the American Psychological Association’s report on eco-anxiety and climate change. And for another perspective on comprehending human existence in the face of climate change, read Hannah Cunningham’s series, “Being Human in a Changing World”.