Between the latest extreme weather event, a damning report on future temperature projections or news of another species going extinct, climate change in the headlines has become standard.
Greater awareness of climate change is unarguably a positive (a lack of this is partially what got us into this mess, after all) but what toll does this have on our mental health?
Communications Coordinator, Meg McGrath contributes to our series on eco-anxiety for #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.
Disclaimer: this blog discusses various aspects of mental health. If you need support, please refer to this page.
What is ‘eco-anxiety’?
Eco-anxiety is described by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.
We saw Greta Thunberg start to cry as she detailed the impacts of climate change as she addressed the European Parliament, hundreds of young people have gone on “birth strike” and Climate Psychology Alliance report a large increase in people seeking help for feelings of anxiety in relation to climate change. Described as a feeling of “loss”, “sorrow” or “grieving”, the number of people experiencing eco-anxiety is ever-growing and seemingly here to stay.
Young people today are growing up amidst the context of an ever uncertain future. Our country has been fortunate enough for each generation to generally create a better future for the next for the past century or so, until now. Reports detail prospects of food shortages, water shortages and more frequent and severe extreme weather events, just as a start.
At the age of 23, the prospect of there only being (now) 11 years left to take action to prevent drastic climate breakdown feels terrifying. That’s a time frame of just under half of my life; and although I wish there was more time between myself now and the 12-year-old who almost chopped off their entire fringe in an attempt of a DIY haircut, in reality, that is no time at all to solve an issue so pervasive and rooted in all parts of our society.
Someone experiencing a feeling that could spur them to take action could make eco-anxiety appear like a positive thing. However, the line between feeling fear of climate breakdown that motivates you and one that simply paralyses you is a very fine one, and one that I have personally struggled to differentiate between.
There have been periods of my life when researching for university assignments or simply attempting to keep up to date with environmental news, that I felt I was utterly immersed in the issue. That it felt impossible and almost irresponsible to focus on anything else when climate change poses such a threat to all life on this planet.
I recently read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and she speaks about climate anxiety in a way that really resonated with me:
“I realised that I had become so convinced that we’re headed towards a grim ecological collapse that I was losing my ability to enjoy my time in nature. The more beautiful and striking the experience, the more I found myself to be grieving its inevitable loss- like someone being unable to fall fully in love because she can’t stop imagining the inevitable heartbreak”.
Coping with eco-anxiety
In true millennial fashion, climate change meme pages are popping up across social media, linking pop culture icons such as Marie Kondo (if only she could work her magic on our planet, eh?) to various environmental issues.
This may seem as if issues around climate change are being trivialised, but as many young people are still unable to vote in elections that decide their country’s environmental policy, there’s no surprise that alternative routes to express their fear are found- one being dark humour. And as young people today will face the impacts of climate change more than any other generation, despite having contributed the least, they have every right to fear what their future will hold.
I threw myself into making all of the lifestyle changes I could in an attempt to placate the fear I felt so I could feel I was doing something of use. I went vegan overnight, was a recycling enthusiast (wading through my neighbours’ bins to get their recyclables out of their waste bin is definitely not my finest moment), switched my energy supplier to a renewable one, bought my food at my local zero waste shop, sourced everything second hand when I could, and more recently, I’ve vowed to never fly again.
There is no mistake in saying these were all attempts to remedy the guilt I felt (and still feel) about my impact on the environment. Are they the sole solution? Absolutely not, but changing the way our society functions and the way we use our Earth’s resources are integral changes to living within its limits. Moving towards a more circular economy, a food system that can sustain an ever-growing population and localising our society will be necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Small changes, as well as systemic ones, must coincide to achieve this.
I’ve learnt the hard way that doing the classic “head in the sand” tactic once in a while is absolutely necessary for self-preservation. To quote a recent mental health campaign: “self-care is not selfish”, having a break from reading reports, news articles and campaigning is nothing to be ashamed of. Consistently pushing yourself to do something from a state of fear is only detrimental in the long term and finding an outlet for your eco-anxiety is vital, whatever that may be for you.
Good outlets for eco-anxiety:
- Joining an environmental campaigning group
- Discussing your feelings with friends, family or a trained professional
- Getting into nature
- Doing something that tangibly helps you be more sustainable (here’s one of our previous blogs on this if you need some inspiration)
- Finding a way you can keep yourself up to date with news without it negatively impacting you
Our generation is entering the workforce more environmentally-aware than any previously (look at the thousands of schools students striking for the climate if you need convincing) and whatever industry you’re going into, we can all help reform them. Even if the company you work for isn’t directly related to the environment, you can push for organisational environmental policies around sustainable travel waste management and investments, as this is an area that still needs huge reform.
While we each do and can make a difference, we cannot solve the issue alone. We need vast and rapid change, but collectively and consciously, we can all work towards a future that we live in harmony with our planet.
If you need support for your mental health whilst at University, please refer to this page for guidance.