The impact of environmental issues on mental health is a recurrent theme in my practice.
Many people describe an unsettled, niggling worry about the environment and what the human race is collectively doing to make things worse and not doing to address the current reality. They are genuinely concerned about climate change, but their level of distress ebbs and flows, pushed to simmer on the back burner when reactions to other personal or global issues arise. Their worries come to the forefront when triggered by external events such as natural disasters or pictures of starving polar bears. I describe this prevalent level of concern as “eco-anxiety”. Environmental concerns bring us to face our own mortality in uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking ways.
For a growing number of people I meet, the emotional impact of environmental devastation extends way beyond disquiet and concern. They describe a deep and pervasive sense of fear, powerlessness and hopelessness about the future, accompanied by a little or a lot of bitterness and cynicism about the apathy and greed of humankind. I conceptualize this level of distress as “eco-despair”. I see it in caring human beings who have close and personal contact with our changing ecological system: millennials whose ideals and passion for healing the planet are crushed by the uphill battle of change, seasoned activists feeling burnt out from years of lobbying and fighting to preserve nature, artists and lovers of the great outdoors, those who live off the land, particularly in the rapidly changing Arctic, and the “canaries in the coal mine” who are affected by malignancies and autoimmune disease.
As a therapist, I have no magic phrases or precision tools in my mental health toolbox for living happily and at peace in relationship with an ailing planet. I too, am deeply disturbed, saddened, and trying to find a middle ground between hope for innovative solutions and despair that we have slid too far. When the global environmental crisis invokes personal existential crises in my clients, I pay close attention to the burden of their suffering, help define and unpack mixed emotions while holding space for their expression, and reflect back their deeply held values, strengths and positive actions, while bearing witness to the struggle of maintaining hope and optimism.
Eco-anxiety and despair may be accompanied by a mix of conflicting emotions, such guilt for not personally taking action as much as they would like, anger and disgust towards corporate offenders, distrust of government policies, and renewed grief and sorrow with each new ecological disaster.
I worry about some of my clients. Depression and burnout are real and growing consequences that need to be addressed. As much as time is of the essence in taking action on environmental devastation, sometimes helpers need to step back from the issues to take care of themselves, especially when bitterness and hopelessness prevail. Similar to compassion fatigue in frontline healthcare workers and caregivers, how are environmentalists to extend care to the planet when their own cups are empty? Simple strategies can help, such as spending time in nature, connecting with supportive people, finding sources of inspiration and learning about new innovations in addressing climate change. We all need to restore mind and body and lean into each other sometimes.
One way of coping with feeling overwhelmed and discouraged is to pick one area to focus on, and commit to a course of action that feels congruent with personal values, individual circumstances, skills and capacity. In between powerlessness and absolute control over any situation, there is always a way to exert some influence. Even small actions can have a ripple effect. Finding a personal zone of influence has power, especially if multiple people do so.
I see many hopeful examples in my work and daily life. Mothers and teachers cultivating a love of nature in young children and teaching them simple ways of treading lightly on the earth. Students pursuing environmental studies or becoming more politically active in social change. Millennials using technology and social media in countless innovative ways. Artists of all kinds plying their crafts to highlight the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Retirees volunteering time and skills. For most of us, it comes down to the choices we make every day, from where we spend our money to the ways we conserve resources and live sustainably.
In mental health, we need to keep in mind that politicians and pandemics will come and go, but the environmental crisis is an issue that is here to stay. How has your well-being been impacted? What helps?