World Mental Health Day: the climate crisis and my emotions
Today is World Mental Health Day, a day where we are encouraged to talk about our mental health. So, here goes...
Over the last year, there have been a number of factors negatively influencing my mental wellbeing, including (but not limited to) the pandemic, job hunting, the death of a family member and general life uncertainty. But on top of all of these stressors, our changing climate been an ever present anxiety-inducing element. Studying Environmental Sciences (and specialising in sustainable food and agriculture) has opened my eyes to the wide range of detrimental impacts the climate breakdown is going to have around the world.
After listening to an inspiring talk by Dr. Kate Marvel last week, I wanted to take some time today to really reflect on my emotions about climate change, to try to determine how this all encompassing threat is impacting my mental health. So, this afternoon, I grabbed some notecards, made myself a cup of hot chocolate and sat down at the dining room table to unpack my emotions regarding the climate crisis. I started with flashcards, identifying the emotions I feel that are triggered by ecological breakdown. From there, I thought in more depth about what causes me to feel each of these emotions. I love a good mind map, so the next step was to move to the living room floor, break out the coloured pens and create a mind map to organise my thoughts in a more visual way.
For me, talking about these feelings can be difficult. It's hard to find the right words. When discussing the impacts of climate change in the past, I have sometimes become defensive, angry and argumentative. I know that writing your feelings down can be beneficial, so that's what I'm trying to do with this blog post. I threw this post together in one evening, so I don't expect it to be eloquent or profound – I'm sure there's a thousand things I've missed addressing.
But that's not the point. I just wanted to take this opportunity to get my thoughts down. Maybe it will help the people who love me to understand where I'm at and what I'm feeling with regards to climate change. Maybe it will inspire you to reflect on the feelings you have towards the climate emergency. Or maybe it will just be a useful afternoon for myself, to organise my thoughts and identify productive ways to get out of the climate anxiety hole I find myself falling into.
In their post about climate anxiety, the Climate Reality Project states that "A great start to fighting climate anxiety and learning how to handle a changing climate starts with acknowledging what’s happening – then talking about it with those you trust. By acknowledging how you feel, it allows you to determine how you can act to take care of yourself."
This post is obviously very personal, and I'm a little scared to share it. At the same time, I wanted to share my thoughts and feelings in case others are experiencing the same emotions and are fighting with the impacts of climate change on their own mental health. If you want to talk about how the climate crisis makes you feel, I encourage you to reach out, to me or to anyone who you feel comfortable to talk about these things with. I hope this post is useful, or if not, at least thought provoking.
Climate anxiety: the seven key emotions I associate with the climate crisis
I am terrified. What will the future hold? Will I be strong enough, resilient enough, to withstand the challenges that the climate crisis is going to throw at us? Where can I live that will be safe, now that nowhere is safe from the impacts of climate change? How can I protect my family, my friends and loved ones from the extreme weather events that are going to become more frequent as the climate warms? I'm scared for my future and for the future of humanity. I'm afraid that I will be forced to find a job that does not contribute to solving the climate crisis, a career in which I am stuck feeling useless. And finally, I'm afraid that people I love will get bored of my fear for the future. I'm afraid this fear makes me appear weak, which will make it hard to form lasting relationships.
Linked very closely with my fear for the future is an overwhelming sense of grief. I am grieving the future I could have had if climate change was not an ever present reality. I am mourning for the children I am too scared to bring into this warming world, for the family I am hesitant to build. I am grieving for a future without the anxiety and uncertainty of ecological breakdown always at the back of my mind. I grieve for our beautiful planet, for the ecosystems we are destroying and the families climate change will tear apart. For the places I will never get to see, and the experiences I have dreamed of, but that no longer align with my values.
As we drove through Yosemite National Park back in July, we passed through a forest that was burnt. The trees were blackened and we saw piles of ash smouldering on the side of the road. I cried as the smell of smoke filtered into the car. Walking through a burnt forest in Yosemite Valley a few days later, small ash clouds appearing with every step, I was filled with the same sadness. The world is so full of beautiful and magical places that are at risk of being damaged entirely by climate change. I ache with sadness when I think of how many places and people are already being affected by a warming world, for the people that are being forced from their homes by extreme weather. I am sad about everything we will lose, and everything we have already lost as as result of climate change – for the dying coral reefs and the species threatened with extinction. For the soil we have damaged with our agricultural practices and the coastlines being eaten away by rising seas.
It's hard to know where to start with this emotion, as my mind mapping exercise revealed that I am angry with a lot of different actors! But let's give it a go...I'm angry at the fossil fuel industry for knowing about global warming for decades and doing fuck all to prevent it. I'm frustrated with politicians and governments for their inaction and empty promises. I'm angry at corporations who continue with business as usual, at the fact that jobs to save the planet are paid nothing in comparison to those that continue to exploit people and the planet (society needs to get its priorities in order). I'm disappointed at my university for teaching me about the environmental catastrophes we face, but failing to equip me with the emotional tools to deal with what I've learnt. I'm angry at the inequality and injustice of climate change – that those who will be most affected are those that are least to blame for the position we find ourselves in. I'm angry at capitalism, at the selfishness of Western society and at people who refuse to change their lifestyles to reflect the need for radical societal transformations.
Much of my guilt stems from my personal inaction over the last two years. Since the pandemic started, I have tended to shut myself off from news about the climate crisis. I justified it to myself that I was protecting my mental health, living in the notion that "ignorance is bliss." I have still continued to do my best to reduce my personal environmental footprint, but I know it is not enough any more. I need to be involved in climate movements, have uncomfortable conversations, try to make a difference in a bigger way. I feel guilty that I am not using my position of privilege to fight for environmental justice and for centring myself in my emotions on climate change (and consequently, this blog post). I need to do more.
Uncertainty is the word I would use to describe my last year, but it's also a feeling I associate with my role in fighting the climate crisis. I know I need to get involved with climate activism, but I don't know where to start. What are the next steps? Where is my voice most needed? How can I use my position of privilege to help others? And, importantly, what should I do with my future, how can I find a career that allows me to make a positive impact?
Is overwhelmed an emotion? I'm not sure. But it's something I've been feeling a lot since the beginning of the pandemic. There are so many things that are demanding my attention (the pandemic, the impending fall of democracy in the US, visa worries, job applications), that sometimes I have no energy left to act on climate change. I feel like I am living each day as it comes, and often climate change is just one too many things to worry about. The constant bad news is overwhelming and can be exhausting, as are my emotions associated with the climate crisis. This feeling of being overwhelmed has led me to inaction over the last two years, which I recognise is reinforcing the other emotions I have just outlined. It's a vicious cycle and one that I hope I will be able to break soon.
But...I'm not alone
Although it's depressing to realise how much the climate crisis is impacting young people, it's also reassuring to know that I am not alone in feeling these emotions. A recent study (not peer reviewed as of yet), surveyed 10,000 young people in ten countries around the world. The results of the survey found that 77% of the 16-25 year olds surveyed find the future to be frightening. Like me, respondents expressed feeling sad, afraid, anxious and angry in relation to climate change (among other emotions). I know that action and community are the solutions to my climate anxiety – finding other people that share the same values and beliefs as me, that I can discuss these feelings with and find ways to create meaningful change.
While less dominant in my current mental state, there are also a number of positive feelings that I associate with the climate crisis:
Love for the beautiful world around us
Respect for all of the activists who are using their time and energy to create positive change, especially youth activists who have shown great courage and maturity in the actions they have organised
Hope that we can build a more sustainable and just world, built on the foundations of intersectional environmentalism
I am going to hang my mind map on my wall, to remind myself that the emotions I am feeling about climate change are real and, more importantly, that they are valid. I have spent too long feeling overwhelmed by these emotions, letting my fear and grief drive inaction, when this is the exact opposite of what I should be doing. I hope this exercise will encourage me to act boldly, to speak up, to join others in fighting to make a positive change in the world. I aim to continue connecting with nature as often as possible and to encourage others to find something in this world they're willing to fight to protect.
Young people’s voices on climate anxiety, government betrayal and moral injury: a global phenomenon (preprint): https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3918955
Eco Anxiety and Environmental Education (journal article): https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/12/23/10149
"What Can I Do?" episode on the Yikes Podcast: https://open.spotify.com/episode/0brJgiL981nEob4xqzwb9o?si=2520bd06a18d446a
Climate Anxiety is an Overwhelming White Phenomenon: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-climate-anxiety/
The climate crisis and the rise of eco-anxiety: https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/10/06/the-climate-crisis-and-the-rise-of-eco-anxiety/