Every day seems to bring another news story about climate change. Floods, tornados, and wildfires race across our screens; reports on species extinctions, ocean pollution, and rising sea levels come fast and furious. Before we can process one event, along comes another.
The constant barrage of these stories had led to a newly recognized phenomenon called climate depression. Climate depression, or climate grief, manifests as fear, hopelessness, and anxiety specifically in response to news and reports about climate change.
Unlike some other types of mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, where symptoms reflect an undue, sometimes irrational, response to life situations, climate grief is actually a rational response to the reality of climate change, and requires a somewhat different approach to manage.
In March 2017 the American Psychological Association published a report called Mental Health and Our Changing Climate. The report focused on mental health issues in the aftermath of traumatic weather events, but it acknowledged that there is a growing concern about the mental health impacts of climate change, even for those who are simply observing events unfold.
Carol Ride, an Australian psychotherapist and founder of Psychology for a Safe Climate, teaches other psychology professionals how to work with people experiencing distress because of climate change. Her group emphasizes the mental health benefits of taking action on climate change while also taking time out for breaks and self-care.
Another group, the Climate Psychiatry Alliance was formed to bring together psychiatrists and broaden their skills in working with individuals grappling with the “deeply penetrating emotional experiences” of climate change. The Alliance encourages psychiatrists to address climate change and its effect on mental health in a three-prong approach—by working with individuals, with community agencies and by speaking out with regard to public policies that effect climate change.
If you feel down about climate change, you are definitely not alone. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication released a report in 2018 documenting the increase of awareness and concern about climate change in America. The number of Americans who are very worried about climate change doubled from 2011 levels. Climate change is happening to us collectively, and one way we can thrive, not just survive, is to reach out to one another.
Aimee Reau and LaUra Schmidt responded to the issue of collective despair, including climate grief, by launching the Good Grief Network. Their work acknowledges that having an emotional response to climate worries is fully understandable.
Through their 10-step program they focus skills such as understanding brain patterns, practicing gratitude, self-care techniques, and sitting with uncertainty. The program helps people “build personal resilience and empowerment while strengthening community ties to combat despair, inaction, and eco-anxiety on the collective level.” As they say on their website, “Community is tragedy’s remedy.”
Climate grief isn’t unlike the well-known five stages of grief that people who have lost a loved one experience. Unsurprisingly, one common response to the overwhelming data is abject climate change denial — denial that the problem is as severe as it is, denial that we feel grief about the threat climate change poses, denial that we have the power to effect change — we even deny that we are part of the problem. All of this prevents us from taking action, which in turn makes us feel powerless, and so begins a vicious cycle.
Denial is a defense mechanism that protects our psyche when we’re confronted with difficulties that we’re not ready to face. That denial is an understandable, even healthy, response to the reality of climate change, but it’s not healthy to stay there. Staying in denial means we don’t take action to address the problems that trouble us.
We need to process the emotions that we feel about the environment before we can move to a more empowered place. The first step in processing these emotions is acknowledging them. It requires courage to set aside our denial and face our fears, but it is necessary before we can reach a healthier place.
People who are most engaged with climate issues — environmental scientists, students, and activists, for example — often struggle the most with existential climate grief. The denial that protects our mental health isn’t as easy to come by when your job or your avocation involves facing the realities of climate change daily.
Jennifer Atkinson, a professor at the University of Washington, began offering a class in climate grief to her environmental studies students to ward off the despair and burnout that can plague environmentalists. While teaching environmental studies classes, she watched as students struggled emotionally to process what they were learning academically. Though her class was criticized for “coddling” millennial students, Atkinson expresses admiration for her students’ willingness to remain engaged and to choose not to live in denial. The goal of her course, which filled to capacity, is to provide students with tools to manage their distress in the face of a long battle.
The Good Grief Network and Atkinson’s course have several things in common that can help manage climate depression. One is recognizing that despair about climate change needs to be addressed if people are to remain capable of facing its reality. Another is that action is at least one antidote to despair. Building a supportive community where emotions can be felt and processed is also helpful.
Much of the thinking in climate grief work emphasizes the necessity of self-care in coping with climate woes. If you are someone who is willing move past denial into action, it’s vitally important that you don’t neglect your own well-being to do so. It’s not selfish to make sure that you are operating on all cylinders. Remember, if your cup is full, you have something to give.
So, without feeling guilty, take a media break for a day or even a half-day to recharge your batteries. Walk in nature, take a restorative yoga class, take a warm bath. If it’s all feeling too much or it’s hard to find a community where you can find support, find a qualified mental health professional. You won’t be the only one who’s there to talk about climate grief.
Green, Emily Psy.D. “The Existential Dread of Climate Change,” Psychology Today, October 13, 2017
Clayton, Susan, et. al. Mental Health and Our Changing Climate, American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, Eco-America, March 2017
Hickman, Caroline, “Depressed about climate change? Here’s how psychotherapy can help,” World Economic Forum June 11, 2019