‘Climate Anxiety’ is not a mental illness but a reaction to an unwell planet

Jan 31, 2024 | Canadian News, Features, International News

Humber accounting student Curtis Squire finds himself scrolling through bad news about climate change more often than he would like to admit. He confesses things like the abnormally snowless winter that he experienced and rising sea levels swallowing entire islands scare him.

“I do kind of hate to say it, I am starting to feel probably more on the nihilistic side than the optimistic side if that makes sense,” he said.

Climate anxiety is on the rise in younger people and psychologists say that it’s not a mental illness but a sign of compassion for the world.

The National Library of medicine defines climate anxiety as those that are aware of and psychologically feel an existential threat because of climate change.

Dr. Britt Wray, a psychiatrist and instructor at Stanford Medicine, said during a Jan. 23, 2024, talk at Humber College President’s Lecture series said there are mental health effects associated with climate anxiety

Wray said it is normal to feel climate anxiety and it shows a personal link to the planet

“That’s healthy, this is appropriate, this is normal and you are not alone,” she said. Wray also said it would be better to call it “climate compassion.”

Wray said she’s a climate Activist now because there was a time when she was experiencing many of those issues.

Nancy Blair, a psychologist who works with people who have climate anxiety said climate anxiety is not pathological.

“if you feel it, it doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. It means you’re having a rational response to what’s happening in the world,” she said. “I’d say in the last 10 years, we’re seeing more and more of it now, some people are totally shut down.

Some people are feeling anxious, worried about the future,” she said.

Climate anxiety has been steadily getting worse recently. A survey conducted in part by Wray of 10,000 young people aged between 16 and 25 around the world suggested 45 per cent of them say their concern about the climate crisis hinders their lives in some way and that number jumps 70 for countries in the global south.

However this may motivate people to do more to fight against climate change.

Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh, a psychologist and environmental scientist at the University of Bath in England, said some people who say they’re very worried to the extent they’re being distracted by the issue are at times motivated to take action,

Whitmarsh said climate anxiety is linked to taking action against climate change and says it can help deal with the angst.

“Taking action is a good way to manage climate anxiety for two reasons” she said. “Firstly, you get the social support from being around other people who are rather like-minded and worried about climate change as well.

“And if you take action as a collective it’s more likely to be effective and see a bigger effect,” Whitmarsh said.

She said the media has a responsibility to highlight solutions and provide positive news about the climate crisis to prevent these feelings from going too far.

“There needs to be a bit more of an emphasis on ensuring that any coverage of climate change is not just talking about how bad it is, what the risks are, but also highlighting some of those solutions as well,” Whitmarsh said

Jennifer Silverstein, a California climate-aware psychologist who has worked with young children and families, says there are ways people can use to manage climate anxiety.

“Some of my personal favourites involve using any kind of rhythm, because that really helps keep the body calm,” she said. “So, going for a walk, or being intentional with our breath, those are just building our ability to cope with distress,”

Silverstein said that the community one lives in is a powerful tool in easing anxious feelings by recognizing there is a collective impact.

“We’re not going to go through this as individuals, and one thing that brings people often a lot of solace is we’re working in a collective,” she said.

Organizing with like-minded people and finding common ground with them are all things Silverstein said can help people cope.

Wray agrees.

“That, given how many mental health challenges the climate crisis is presenting us with today, in all of them, community saves,” she said.

Squire says despite still feeling nihilistic about the future because of climate change, positive news like the discussion of potential solutions like renewable energy by policymakers does give him some hope for the future.