- Anxiety and distress related to environmental issues have spiked in the last decade, spurred by a dramatic increase in climate disasters.
- Climate-aware therapists are trained to look for signs of climate-based distress and anxiety and help their patients become more resilient.
- Creating connections with others can help people with climate-based distress to cope with their feelings.
In the last decade, the term “climate anxiety” has been used to describe the fear or frustration that arises out of climate crises or one’s perceived inability to stop climate change.
Climate anxiety or eco-anxiety isn’t officially classified in the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatry Association, yet more people are experiencing grief, anxiety or distress related to climate change. And mental health professionals are taking notes.
Two-thirds of Americans are anxious about the impact of climate change on the planet, while more than half are anxious about its effect on their mental health, according to an APA poll. In a Yale University survey last year, more than 40% of respondents reported feeling “disgusted” or “helpless” about climate change.
Living in a deteriorating environment takes a mental toll on almost everyone, says Robin Cooper, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
“We live in the world through the experience of our emotions and our thoughts. So, the degradation of our world definitely impacts our mental health and our feelings,” Cooper tells Get Meds Info.
Cooper is part of a growing group of climate-aware mental health professionals, who are trained to recognize the profound physical and psychological effects of climate change and and to address eco-anxiety and distress in their patients.
In July, a United Nation panel released a report revealing that even if countries cut emissions immediately, the planet is likely to warm by about 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next two decades, leading to a hotter future with more frequent extreme weather.
After the explosive report, major health groups in the United States wrote to Congress, urging lawmakers to prioritize reducing greenhouse emissions as climate change has become a “health emergency.”
A Growing Need for Climate-Aware Therapists
While the APA recognizes climate change as a threat to mental health, many therapists reported feeling that they had not received proper training on dealing with the climate anxiety.
“If a therapist is not particularly tuned in, a client can come in talking about their eco-anxiety or grief or however they may be experiencing their distress, and the therapist might minimize it, not validate it, and kind of put it back on the client,” Leslie Davenport, MS, a climate psychology educator and consultant, tells Get Meds Info. “This is a terrible first step because they’re going to feel more isolated.”
People experience the mental health outcomes of climate change in different ways. For instance, one in six low-income mothers who survived Hurricane Katrina met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.In Canada, elders in Inuit tribes reported feeling sadness and fear because of the changing landscapes in which they base their livelihoods and cultural identity.
In some cases, patients come with existing trauma and their mental health needs may be compounded, Davenport says. People often present their climate-based distress differently—some experience overwhelming anxiety, while others may have increased stomachaches or other physical pains.
“My very first step, which is really true when people come in with any kind of distress, is to provide a lot of validation: ‘Yes, this is real. Yes, it’s distressing. The fact that you are distressed is telling me that you’re paying attention, you’re empathetic, and it’s important to you.’ These are all really wonderful human qualities,” Davenport says.
When the feelings of distress become overwhelming, methods like practicing mindfulness and increasing intake of positive news about the environment can help people ease their emotions.
What This Means For You
Climate-aware therapists can help you understand and cope with climate anxiety and distress. You can find mental health professionals near you who are trained in addressing climate change in this directory. If you’re interested in a group approach, look for peer support organizations like climate cafés and branches of the Good Grief Network.
The Value of Building Networks
Climate change is often a shared experience. For survivors of natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, working within their community to rebuild homes and support others can be a step towards healing, Davenport says.
Gathering with others who have similar emotional responses to climate change can help people feel validated and less alone in their experiences.
Cooper suggests building “resilient communities” that can help people cope with the mental health effects of climate change and prepare to tackle these problems in the future.
“We need to move our models away from individual therapy interventions to a more collaborative model that is based much more in community, and much more in group interventions and processes,” she says.
Becoming involved in environmental activism or advocacy efforts can also dampen feelings of helplessness. This work comes in many forms, with opportunities for individuals to use their unique skills or interests to help the causes they feel most passionate about, Davenport adds.
People who aren’t interested in attending rallies or demonstrations, for instance, could check if a local environmental organization needs help with building its website, reaching out to community members, or doing hands-on work to support the local ecosystem.
As the environment continues to change, mental health professionals play a key role in providing tools and resources that help people navigate climate crisis.
“The conventional definition of emotional resiliency is how to bounce back emotionally from a stressful event and kind of return to your baseline,” Davenport says. “I don’t believe that works with climate change because there’s no going back.”