By Leah Harris

Climate Change is Impacting Our Mental Health. What Can We Do? 

In October 2018, the United Nations issued a report that sounded a dire alarm for our future. The report said that we have by 2030 to slash carbon emissions and avert climate catastrophe. That is, just 12 short years to head off a rapid increase in extreme weather events, sea level rise, species extinction, and “food-insecurity.” The widespread human concern about the future of our planet has given rise to terms such as “climate grief” and “eco-anxiety.” 

Recent years have seen increased attention to the present and potential impacts of climate change on mental health, including an increase in suicide. Yet professionals warn against making “eco-anxiety” an official psychiatric diagnosis. “It’s a rational reply to a really serious problem,” Maria Ojala, a psychologist at Örebro University in Sweden, told Live Science. “We have to ask, Is it more pathological for someone to be so worried about climate change or is it actually more pathological that people are not more worried about it?” said psychologist David Austern, a clinical psychologist at NYU. 

If you or someone you know struggles with climate grief or eco-anxiety, you’re not alone. According to a 2018 Yale survey, 70% of Americans are “worried” about climate change, 29% are “very worried” and 51% feel “helpless.” Here are some suggestions for fostering individual and collective mental health and resilience in the face of an unknown future.

  • Mental health experts and climate activists alike say that taking action is one of the best antidotes to eco-anxiety. Individual actions matter.
  • Meet with a buddy or organize a circle of people with similar values who understand and empathize about climate change and protecting the environment. Grieve and take action together.
  • If you’re too anxious to take action, start by spending some time each day in a natural place. According to Emily Anderson from MED Climate Action Group: “Being outside has got to be the biggest thing I do to find inspiration and relieve anxiety. I find it’s such a good stress reliever and a powerful reminder of why all of this matters.” 

As writer Ellie Mae O’Hagan notes in a Vice essay: “The truth is, how we react to climate change is still up for grabs. How bad it gets and the kind of world we build from it is our decision to make. We shouldn’t suppress climate grief, but expand it out and use it as a gateway to action. Hope is the axe you break down doors with in an emergency. But first you need to recognize that the house is on fire.”

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