By Leah Harris
The rapidly intensifying effects of climate change have begun to take a toll on the mental health of people globally. In a new study surveying 10,000 youth age 16-25 from 10 countries around the world, 75% of respondents agreed with the statement, “the future is frightening.” And a poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association in 2020 showed that nearly 70% of adults have some level of anxiety about what climate change will do to the planet. Slightly more than 50% were concerned about the toll on their mental health.
We also know that the impacts of climate change and natural disasters are never equally distributed, with Black Indigenous and People of Color communities in the greatest harms’ way due to existing global inequities and the ongoing effects of colonialism and racism.
There is some disagreement about what to call the distress resulting from climate change, with some arguing that the terms “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety” may have helped to spark a conversation about mental health, but have ultimately outlived their usefulness. “While it may be an apt descriptor for a generalized concern about a potential threat, it doesn’t get at the immediacy and specificity of the threats people are actually facing today or the vast discrepancy between lived experiences,” writes Isabel Whitcomb in Yes! magazine.
Climate impact and climate distress are going to look different for everyone, but here are three general keys to navigating these times of rapid change:
Take Time Out in Nature. One way to cultivate your health and well-being in the face of climate-related distress is to spend time among trees, which, sadly, are also being threatened by wildfires and climate change. This in-depth report from WBUR discusses the myriad benefits of trees, for humans as well as the planet.
Take Refuge in Each Other. More and more, those experiencing distress related to climate change and injustice are forming peer-to-peer support groups. While these groups have yet to spread widely in the U.S., the Climate Café movement is a free peer support option where a facilitator engages a group in processing their thoughts and emotions about the climate crisis.
Take Action. One of the most common pieces of advice in uncertain times is to focus on what you can control. Join a local climate justice group. Get involved with local mutual aid efforts. Start a Climate Café in your community. Fight for equity in access to trees and green space. Improve your ability to support others by taking a free training course such as Oakland’s Community Emergency Response Team Training (CERT). These are just a small handful of ideas; the possibilities for action are of course endless.
While there are no simple solutions for facing the crisis, our greatest asset is our collective care for one another and the planet. Together, we can help fight for the future we know is possible.
- Eco-anxiety: 75% of young people say ‘the future is frightening.’ (Medical News Today)
- Is It Time to Abandon the Term “Climate Anxiety”? (Yes)
- Trees: Our Mental, Physical, Climate Change Antidote (WBUR)
- Anxiety and biscuits: the climate cafes popping up around the world (The Guardian)
- Climate Change Is Making Natural Disasters Worse — Along With Our Mental Health (NPR)
- Poorer communities of color have fewer trees to offer shade and combat climate change (ABC7 News)
- The Growing Need for Climate-Aware Therapists (VeryWell Health)
Leah Harris is a non-binary, queer, neurodivergent, disabled Jewish writer, facilitator, and organizer working in the service of truth-telling, justice-doing, and liberation. They’ve had work published in the New York Times, CNN, and Pacific Standard. You can learn more about their work at their website and follow them on Instagram.