Guest Blog By Rebeca Rehr, MPH & Jon Gorman, PsyD
Climate change impacts our health in many ways. Excessive heat can impair kidney function. We are seeing more bugs in more places that carry diseases. And air pollution can cause asthma, or make existing cases worse. We also know that while climate change impacts all of us, these impacts are not felt equally across populations. Systemic inequities make some communities more vulnerable, including communities of color and low-income communities. Other people that are particularly susceptible to these effects include children or older adults, pregnant individuals, and those with a pre-existing health condition or disability. These effects can be compounded for those experiencing more than one factor.
The mental health impacts of climate change
Alongside the physical health consequences, many of us also feel a range of emotions: fear of disasters like more frequent hurricanes, floods, and fires; anxiety or helplessness; anger at our inaction on systemic change that could have prevented these scenarios; and apathy because it feels like nothing we do can make a difference anyway.
Many of these emotions are normal, and in fact healthy. Fear or alarm are healthy responses to impending danger. These emotions motivate us to pay attention and move towards action. Grief is a healthy response to loss that connects us more deeply to what we love or care about. In fact, it may be concerning when people are not experiencing any emotions in response to threat. In faction some way, this may be contribute to our failure to act with the level of urgency that is needed.
More and more, people are bringing up climate change-related concerns in therapy. In some cases, these emotions such as anxiety or hopelessness can become so overwhelming that it can be hard to function normally. Some people wonder whether they should have children, worrying that our planet will not be able to support populations in the future. Others describe feeling paralyzed around making decisions, thinking about the environmental consequences. Hopelessness or despair may get to the point that it is harder to find meaning in life and engage in one’s normal activities. In a recent study of individuals age 16-25, 45% of those surveyed reported feeling so concerned about the climate that it is negatively impacting their functioning.
What can we do with our eco-anxiety?
The good news is: there are things we can do to combat these negative feelings, while at the same time taking action on climate solutions.
The first thing to know is that you are not alone.
A majority of Americans are concerned about climate change. We just don’t always realize others around us are concerned too; we don’t always share this. And we may not know where or how to act. Whether you are an individual anxious about climate change, or a mental health provider seeking to help your patients, there are resources available for all audiences.
Guidance from a recent report from ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association says that solutions start with building individual resilience.
Resilient people anticipate risks, take action to reduce their vulnerability to those risks, respond effectively when negative events occur, and recover more quickly. Helping an individual to build resilience is complex and individualized, but these factors contribute to resilient outcomes:
- Building belief in one’s own resilience
- Fostering optimism and hope
- Cultivating active coping and self-regulation
- Bolstering interpersonal sources of support
- Encouraging connection and care for children
- Finding a source of personal meaning
- Boosting personal preparedness
- When health and safety allow, upholding connection to place.
Mental health professionals can influence change towards climate solutions
Mental health professionals (and broadly, all health professionals) play a powerful role in influencing their professional communities, the public, and policymakers on solutions to climate change. Visible leadership, education, awareness, communication, and involvement are key components in motivating engagement and action. And Americans in particular trust health professionals to lead in this way.
Steps for health professionals include:
- Becoming a climate-literate professional.
- Engaging other health and mental health professionals to share information, ideas, and best practices.
- Being visible and vocal leaders within local communities through education, dialogue, participation in planning, programs, and communications.
- Supporting national and international solutions through media outreach, briefings, testimony, research, and advocacy.
Climate change is here and now. And we can take action. Join your neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family in building community to address the impacts of climate change while building personal resilience.
About The Authors
Rebecca Rehr, MPH, is the Director of Climate Policy & Justice at the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. She was an editor and contributor to the 2021 report, “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate” from ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association.
Jon Gorman, PsyD is a clinical psychologist in Towson, MD and an Assistant Clinical Professor at Loyola University Maryland. He focuses on advocacy around the mental health impacts of climate change.