Climate Change & Mental Health

By Suzy González

February 22nd, 2023

I sit here in the dark writing an article on climate change and mental health, experiencing a chronic migraine—one that comes with nausea and vertigo as well as headache. I think about how migraines are genetic, and that maybe my sensitivity to shifts in the weather is due to a type of ancestral climate trauma due to colonization. I drink some manzanilla tea, pray for relief, and consider returning to prescription medication. I notice that how I care for my migraines and mental health must change to keep up with the quick changes in our climate—here in Texas, particularly when it comes to hotter summers, colder winters, and unpredictable climate fluctuations.

As we see and feel the changes within our climate, our natural landscape as well as all of the earth’s inhabitants are affected. We, as human beings, not only feel these effects physically but mentally. We have valid concerns about our livelihood, our loved ones, and future generations. There are now several mental health-related terms involving the climate that many of us may be experiencing. While things may seem bleak, there is always something that can be done to care for the mental health of ourselves and those around us.

As the world changes, so too do our lifestyles. If you’re feeling anxious or depressed about these quickly occurring changes, you’re not alone. Anxiety often results from a fear of what’s to come, and many of us may be anticipating future losses of aspects of our planet. As we collectively experienced with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with sudden change often comes grief. Many of us found ourselves longing for the lifestyles that were lost to us in the before-times. Climate grief can be similar to that feeling, as our lives are shifting in ways that can bring fear, distress, or unknowing. Climate grief or ecological grief also has to do with the literal “loss (or anticipated loss) of something we value in our local or global environment,” such as a loss of species, ecosystems, and landscapes that hold meaning to us.1  Seasonal depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is depression that occurs in the winter (and more rarely, in the summer). As freezing temperatures are intensified, people will be forced to stay indoors longer, and more people may be affected by SAD.2

Those who have experienced climate disasters are climate trauma survivors. When we think of disaster aid, we may be aware that it provides food, water, and shelter, but mental health care as a form of first aid is now more important than ever. Experiencing life-altering extreme weather such as floods, fires, or hurricanes can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for survivors. Some therapists specialize in disaster mental health, or “psychological first aid,” a branch of mental health care that began in serving survivors of war. Repetitive disasters can stunt the recovery process, and low-income and minoritized communities are more vulnerable to the impacts. Thus, the poor are more likely to experience mental health issues when it comes to our changing climate.3 A recent study also found that air pollution from power plants, cars, agriculture, construction, and wildfires that have been known to cause cancer, stroke, heart attack, or respiratory problems, are also tied to increased risk of depression and anxiety.4

Even those who have felt they don’t live in particularly at-risk parts of the planet are feeling the shifts, and this can take a toll. Being educated about what’s happening in the world may increase stress. In fact, those fighting in the movement are susceptible to feelings of climate activism burnout, or exhaustion due to climate-related stress.5 One may even feel climate guilt from not doing everything they possibly can for the planet.6 It’s sometimes hard to believe that doing small things like using a reusable water bottle is going to save the planet. It can be compared to voting: casting a single vote may not seem like it will make much difference, however when people gravitate to the polls and turn out, big changes in political office can occur in the direction of justice. If we all work to do our part, things can get better—remaining hopeful is also a part of balancing a mental health practice. However, while there is always more that we can do as individuals to work towards matching our actions to our values, we alone cannot make the necessary changes.

In a recent survey of 10,000 16-25-year olds from ten different countries, “59% were extremely worried [about climate change],” while “over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.” These feelings were “significantly related to perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal.”7 Thus, this movement particularly involves holding governments, corporations, agriculture, and the system of capitalism accountable for the prioritization (or the lack thereof) of our planet and her inhabitants. Further, we must center Indigenous voices because our planet’s original protectors hold the knowledge that sustained the earth before ecocolonialism, or the “history that weaves together the ecological changes that took place on our Indigenous lands starting since colonization.”8

We must remember that the world’s problems do not lay on our individual shoulders and that it takes collective care work to support one another. Mutual aid is based on concepts of solidarity and community care that are required when the systems of power that exist fail to support our basic human needs and survival from disasters. Throughout the pandemic, many of us have learned to not rely on governmental structures for our needs, and that compassionate cooperation over capitalistic competition is what will maintain our collective survival.

So what can we do?

Be kind to yourself: Take time for yourself as you’re able, whether it’s a few minutes a day to breathe or a month away from your work, activism, or leadership role. The world’s problems do not lay on your shoulders alone, and you need breaks too.

Less phone, more nature: While staying aware is important, doomscrolling through the ups and downs of social media affects our mental health. Go outside, take a walk, listen to the birds. If you’re desk-ridden and can’t get away, try looking at images of nature or listening to sounds of nature to bring calm to your nervous system. Enjoy the beauty of our planet.

Get involved: Finding purpose in climate activism or advocacy can help with feelings of helplessness or feeling like there’s nothing you can do. Research local or national organizations that could use your help.

Seek help: Look for a climate-aware therapist or speak to the therapist you already work with about your concerns about the environment. Seek out support groups where you can discuss and manage mental distress with like-minded individuals. Check out Climate Psychology Alliance,  Good Grief Network, or Climate & Mind for resources.9

Make simple changes: While some things may be out of our hands, consider the small things that you can do. Try using less plastic, bringing your own bags, composting your food scraps, walking as you’re able or taking public transportation, thrifting, or buying in bulk. You can also work to lower your animal product consumption and purchase fewer items that have to be shipped. Not only will these steps reduce your carbon footprint, but living more sustainably can also reduce your climate stress.

While times are tough, let’s remember to care for ourselves, each other, and our planet to the best of our abilities while encouraging one another to do the same.

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