Mental health and climate change

More and more people around the world—particularly young people and those most affected by the impacts of climate change and related crises—are struggling to stay hopeful about the uncertain and changing future. Living in this era of “wicked problems” is impacting people’s mental health.

For Winnipeg student Maria Farag, climate change makes it challenging to make plans for the future. “Usually when you make a plan, it’s because you have a future,” says Farag. “But if everything around you is already falling apart, what’s the point?” The nineteen year-old says she feels like she’s living in a “real-life post-apocalyptic movie”.

The stress many Canadians are feeling is normal—and, in fact, at times useful, in terms of motivating action—when facing an existential threat like climate change. For some, however, these challenges can be debilitating for their mental health given the complex emotions that can be experienced.

Everyone will experience different emotions in response to climate change, and these emotions may also vary from day-to-day. Examples of these emotions include anxiety, depression, stress, fear, grief, guilt, sadness, anger, hopelessness and despair. Many terms have been suggested to encompass these climate-related emotions, such as climate anxiety, eco-anxiety, climate depression, or eco-grief.

These emotions are experienced in varying levels of intensity. For example, being exposed to climate change information may cause discomfort and could push us to unconsciously stop reading about it to try to take one’s mind off the topic. For others, these emotions may become so intense it can paralyze them and affect their quality of life and ability to go about their daily routine.

The mental health impacts of climate change can be categorized in three general pathways. A person may experience only one pathway or all of them simultaneously.

1) Experiences of extreme weather events. Directly experiencing climate-related extreme weather events, such as flooding, droughts and forest fires, can lead to mortality, morbidity, as well as impact mental health and well-being. Extreme weather events can lead to loss of home, habitat, loved ones, injuries, loss of sleep and other challenges which may in turn cause or increase anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. For example, after a recent flood in New Brunswick, residents reported experiences of intense stress, anxiety, exhaustion, worry and uncertainty. Similar results have been found following wildfires in Alberta. To take another example, an increase in heat is known to cause increased aggression, suicides, and hospitalizations due to mental health emergencies. Those who already face health inequalities—based on social, economic, and environmental factors—are most at risk.

2) Experiences of environmental changes. People who spend more time outdoors and who have a stronger connection to the natural environment around them such as farmers, fishers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts may bear witness to these changes more frequently and intensely. This is particularly true for many Indigenous communities who remain closely connected to their lands, waters and species within their traditional territories.

3) Awareness of climate change information. Interestingly and perhaps surprisingly, people who have supportive networks with reliable climate information may experience decreased mental health impacts than those who remain ignorant or in denial about climate change and its effects. While denial may lower initial climate stress, it fails to address the cause of the issue, and therefore may increase the overall and long-term mental health burden for those who fail to acknowledge and address climate change.

Young people—described as the “climate generation” by some—may be particularly at risk of experiencing these impacts. Research indicates that the rapidly developing brain of children and adolescents, combined with their limited ability to avoid and adapt to climate stressors, may make children more worried about climate change. A Winnipeg-based youth climate activist, Courtney Tosh, described climate change as a daunting threat that she thinks about constantly. “Everyday I’m scared… when I wake up and I don’t know what my future is going to look like,” says Tosh.

4) Climate-related distress is on the rise. In Canada and around the world, we are seeing a rise in these emotions among all age groups, and region-specific responses will be required. Child psychologist Dr. Michelle Warren has seen an increase in climate distress in her Winnipeg-based practice in the last 10 years. “It’s come up in the therapy of almost every child over the age of about 12 who has some degree of anxiety,” said Dr. Warren. “I would say once a week someone makes a very negative statement about the inevitability of climate change, and how ‘the world won’t be here in 50 years anyways.’”

Adults are also having this experience. For Dustin Thiesen, a father, husband and former engineer, the distress he felt about climate change expressed itself in depression. After the birth of his child, he became increasingly worried about climate change. “It threw me into a pretty deep depression for the first time in my life,” he explained. “I got to the point where everything that I loved in life was ruined to me. It was a pretty dark time.”

5) Climate anxiety among white and racialized communities. While climate-related mental health challenges are on the rise, these challenges are not equally reported across different ethnic groups. Some experts have observed that climate anxiety is more commonly reported among white people than racialized communities. As scholar Sarah Jaquette Ray writes, this is likely in part because Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (BIPOC) have faced existential threats to their ways of life for generations, through colonialism, slavery and ongoing racism. Potawatomi scholar-activist Kyle Whyte describes climate change as “an intensification of environmental change imposed on Indigenous peoples by colonialism.” These communities have long histories of resistance and persistence through which they have developed ways to cope with difficult emotions—such as fear, anger, and anxiety—that arise in the face of existential threats.

In contrast, for many white communities, it is new to face an existential threat—such as climate change—and this challenges their sense of safety and future opportunity and thereby raises difficult emotions.

Importantly, it is essential not to conflate experiences of climate anxiety with broader impacts and concern regarding climate change, the latter of which has been found to be higher among racialized communities. Indigenous and other racialized communities stand to be disproportionately impacted by climate change due to societal structural inequalities. And given that Indigenous traditional ways of living have not contributed to current fossil-fueled climate change, when Indigenous peoples are mischaracterized as being part of the problem and/or are disregarded in discussions of solutions, it can pose serious psychological harm. As Ingird Waldron, author and expert on environmental racism, writes, “in order to develop more robust and equitable climate policies, it is important that decision makers understand how climate impacts, environmental racism, and structural determinants of health intersect to shape health and well-being, especially in Indigenous, Black, and other racialized and marginalized communities.”

Anxiety and distressing emotions are normal responses to complex existential threats. For example, if we see a bear in the forest while hiking, it is normal to experience sudden anxiety and fear, as that allows us to choose the best course of action to survive. Climate change is another example of a threat that triggers this anxiety, fear, and survival response.

That said, climate change is global and long-term, so we must learn to cope with the difficult emotions arising in response to this existential threat otherwise these emotions can overwhelm, preventing us from participating in solutions. If you are experiencing significant distress due to climate change, it’s important to consider seeking support from mental health professionals.

The challenge is to recognize and work with these rational but difficult emotions, to turn them into action towards a better future. For more information on how to take action, see our “Taking Action on Climate Emotions” article, which explores the various ways that people and communities can adapt to climate-related distress and support building positive, vibrant and sustainable futures for all.

Excerpted from Climate Atlas under the Creative Commons Liscense. climateatlas.ca.

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