Climate Grief: Planet Fears Affect Mental Health

Climate Grief: Planet Fears Affect Mental Health

For therapist Andrew Bryant, last October’s UN report on climate change introduced a disturbing new mental health concern to his patients.

“I remember being in sessions the next day with patients who had never mentioned climate change before. Some expressed anxious feelings, and we kept talking about it over our next sessions.”

The study confirmed that rising temperatures will cause extreme weather events

Conducted by the world’s leading climate scientists, the study verified that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, by 2040 the earth will have warmed by 2.7 degrees above preindustrial levels. The increase will cause more of the extreme weather events we’re experience now–rising sea levels, species extinction and reduced capacity to produce food.

They’re calling this “climate anxiety”, “climate distress” and “eco-grief”

Bryant is seeing more patients with anxiety or depression related to the earth’s future. Often these patients want to do something to reduce global warming but are overwhelmed and depressed by the scope of the problem and difficulty in finding solutions. They’re anxious about how the earth will change and what it means for their children.

Not an official clinical diagnosis, the psychiatric and psychological communities have names for the phenomenon: “climate distress,” “climate grief,” “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety.”

Climate anxiety hits academia and the mainstream

There is no epidemiological data yet to show how common distress or anxiety related to climate change is. But these feelings are real and affect life decisions.

  • An April survey by Yale and George Mason universities found that 62% of Americans were at least “somewhat worried” about climate change; 23% were “very worried.”
  • Both younger and older generations express worry, although younger Americans generally seem more concerned: A 2019 Gallup poll reported that 54% of those ages 18 to 34, 38% of those 35 to 54 and 44% of those 55 or older worry a “great deal” about global warming.
  • Couples are deciding not to have children because they worry about how difficult the world might be for the next generation.
  • Alyson Laura started seeing a counselor for anxiety and depression in college. Eventually, she began working in building sustainability, where she helped businesses reduce their energy and water consumption. Yet she was conflicted by the contradictions. “I saw corporations destroying the environment, but I was working for them, and I knew what they were doing was wrong.” Laura left her job and found work in another industry.

Talking, acting to feel less isolated

Bryant, the Seattle therapist, recommends sharing concerns with others, whether a counselor, psychiatrist, family, friends or an activist group. “Talking about it makes you feel less isolated, and it’s also a way to relieve the tension, find a pathway forward.” Doing something is even better.

Activism as a form of therapy

One psychologist recommends building relationships within a like-minded group. Getting involved with environmental activist groups can be proactive and fulfilling. For Laura, becoming involved with the international activist group, Extinction Rebellion, has helped her build a network of people who share her values and made her feel as if she’s making a positive contribution to society.

Personal actions help control the situation

  • Make small gestures that cumulatively make a difference: Buy locally produced food, recycle, buy in bulk, take public transport.
  • Learn about how climate change is likely to affect your community.

Rechannel the anxiety. “The goal is not to get rid of the anxiety. The goal is to transform it into something that is bearable, useful and motivating.”

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