The climate crisis and mental health

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 29. April 2023 - 23:29

The climate crisis and mental health

Report on a presentation by
Professor Britt Wray
28 April 2023

The Frontiers Forum on Friday 28 April 2023 included a presentation by Professor Britt Wray of Stanford University on the climate crisis and mental health, which leads to climate anxiety or eco-anxiety. She is the author of Generation Dread, describing her own experience overcoming climate anxiety.

There is climate anxiety from the vicious circle between climate change and mental health. How badly we feel interferes with our ability to build a better world. She said that the psychological effects of disasters are forty times their physical effects, with the most vulnerable being children, women, people on the front lines of disaster, the mentally ill, those living close to the land like ranchers, and indigenous groups. There are direct and indirect stressors in extreme events, physical effects on health, for example from extreme heat, and the stress of our awareness of what is coming. Even climate professionals suffer a psychological toll of outrage, depression, burnout, suppression and guilt, and need psychological help.

But climate anxiety is not a mental health condition but a legitimate reaction to external sources of danger. The climate anxiety continuum can lead to everything from panic attacks to avoidance, but also shows links to pro-environmental behaviour and activism, as experienced by teenage activist Greta Thunberg. It takes effort to align our actions with our values.

A global survey of 10,000 young people showed that 45% said climate anxiety interfered with daily life (70% in developing countries), 59% were very or extremely worried, 75% found the future frightening, 56% said humanity is doomed, and 39% hesitated to have children. They felt they have been betrayed by governments and lied to by leaders. The poor may also have climate concerns, but they also have more immediate priorities.

In this context, what does she recommend to protect and promote mental health. This included win-win solutions: energy efficiency, active transport, green and blue spaces, reduce inequality, community cohesion, and governance based on trust, transparency and participation. We can respect our anxiety rather than fight it. While structural change to address the climate crisis still needs to be our main intervention, we can do a lot at the community level to build a sense of solidarity, community and belonging. Getting serious about fossil fuels and participating in climate activism can help. There are community-minded peer-led methods to strengthen psychological resistance, such as the offering a ten-step process among professionals. She cited as another effort to develop a research agenda on climate change and mental health. Another resource is the existential toolkit for climate educators discussion series, on how to teach about climate change in schools:

Her proposals seemed very close to those of the Bahá’í community in fostering community cohesion, connectedness and participation, reducing inequality, increasing contact with nature, with shared goals building social capital, while undertaking social actions including to address environmental problems where we live.

It is important to work against feelings of helplessness, such as by listening to people who have overcome adversity, or find meaning in suffering, just as the Bahá’ís describe the spiritual growth that comes from tests and difficulties. Even if doom comes, there is no such thing as too late. Baha’is have a vision of the ever-advancing civilization to come after the difficulties ahead. This turns eco-anxiety from a stressor to a resource. Another approach is self-care, such as through mindfulness and connecting with nature. We can generate meaning and purpose, with a survivor mentality, to move toward positive survivor tipping points leading to the radical active hope that we need. She concluded that ecological grief and anxiety can be the start of a healthy response to climate change.

Last updated 4 May 2023