Why the Climate Crisis Is Also a Mental Health Crisis
This story is part of Choosing Earth, a series that chronicles the impact of climate…
This story is part of Choosing Earth, a series that chronicles the impact of climate change and explores what’s being done about the problem.
Climate change. For some of you, just reading those words might cause an emotional response in your body: Maybe you feel dread, worry or the overwhelming need to think about literally anything else. It’s one important signal that the climate crisis is affecting our mental health, both directly and indirectly. As changes to the planet continue to unfold, mental health professionals are ringing the alarm — and it’s time to pay attention.
If you’re feeling anxious, you’re not alone. In 2021, the American Psychological Association released an updated report in collaboration with the nonprofit EcoAmerica, highlighting the threat of the climate crisis on mental health. In June 2022, the World Health Organization launched a policy brief urging countries to incorporate mental health support into their climate change responses. People around the world report feeling anxious, stressed, sad and even hopeless, with over three-quarters of Americans “concerned” about climate change and nearly a quarter “alarmed” — almost double the number from 2017, according to the APA report.
The mental health aspect is just one of a myriad of costs stemming from the climate crisis. And while it may seem less consequential in the face of lost homes, food shortages and new diseases, we ignore it at our own peril. Mental and physical health are inextricably linked, and psychology plays a major role in how people act (or don’t act) in response to crises like climate change.
“Climate change is one of the most crucial issues facing our nation and the world today, and it is already taking a huge toll on the mental health of people around the globe,” Arthur C. Evans Jr., CEO of the APA, said in a press release. “Psychology, as the science of behavior, will be pivotal to making the wholesale changes that are imperative to slow — and, we hope, stop — its advance.”
From pre-trauma to post-trauma, nobody is immune
As the climate crisis worsens, expect more natural disasters, including extreme storms, floods and wildfires, often on your TikTok or Twitter feed or TV news channels.
But what you don’t often see on the news is the long-lasting psychological toll of these events. Each disaster leaves thousands of survivors grappling with the aftermath, causing a ripple effect of trauma, stress and grief.
Studies have found rates of post-traumatic stress disorder as high as 40% after natural disasters, according to the 2021 APA report. Some populations fare even worse: After Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, 65.7% of people who had to evacuate the island met the criteria for PTSD. Other mental health problems also proliferate in the difficult aftermath of disasters, including anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse.
And yet avoiding disaster doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the clear. The less-directly affected are also struggling. In addition to changing weather patterns, heatwaves, droughts and power outages, there’s the ever-looming dread of not knowing when or if it’ll be “your turn” to experience a disaster in your area. The dread of what climate change might bring, and the inherent uncertainty of it all, has led to the phenomena known as “climate anxiety” and “eco-anxiety.”
The APA has also coined a new condition: “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” or living in a constant state of stress about a potential future catastrophe. Certain populations are especially vulnerable to anxiety and grief, including young people and indigenous people, according to the WHO and the APA.
Terms like “climate anxiety” sound similar to the names of diagnosable mental health conditions, like generalized anxiety disorder. But they’re not the same. The distress you feel over a warming planet is more akin to the grief of losing a loved one — it’s a natural emotional response to a real situation, not a symptom of illness.
“Climate anxiety is reasonable and rational, so it’s not a problem that’s ‘all in the head,'” said Susan Clayton, a member of the APA board of directors and a co-author on the APA report.
But it can become overwhelming enough that it interrupts your day-to-day life, with symptoms similar to clinical anxiety. “People might want to seek out help when it starts interfering with their ability to function: they can’t sleep, or can’t concentrate, or can’t enjoy themselves,” Clayton said. For people with preexisting mental health conditions, these effects can be even harder to cope with.
Why mental health matters for the planet
Mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it can affect every sphere of life, as the WHO report highlights. For example, mental and physical health are tightly linked, with effects on sleep, the digestive system and the immune system.
Ignoring your mental health means that you may struggle to show up for your community and planet. Although the majority of people are worried about climate change, that concern doesn’t always translate into action. Many are paralyzed by hopelessness, helplessness and the so-called “spiral of silence”: when people avoid talking about the climate crisis, leading to fewer conversations about the problem.
Mental health professionals see these trends firsthand through their work and research. Their expertise has shown that in order to effectively grapple with climate change, we must also learn to accept our many difficult emotions around it. Because these emotions are so widespread, they can also serve to unite humanity under the umbrella of a common experience, showing just how directly climate change has and will affect every single one of us.
Without action, we’ll stay on whatever path we’re on by default. Collectively, as climate scientists warn over and over, that’s a dangerous choice. These intersections have led to the coining of a new, growing subfield: climate psychology.
“The growth in the past five years has been huge,” Clayton said about the field. “I would say the second half of the 2010s, roughly, was when a significant proportion of psychologists began to recognize this as an area that was important and relevant for mental health practitioners. You now see signs that education and training programs are beginning to think about incorporating this.”
Intentionally addressing your mental health — both in the aftermath of a direct hit, and more generally as the climate evolves — can not only spare you from the worst, but also set you up to fare better, in some ways, than you did before. An increasingly rich body of research and on-the-ground experience shows what, exactly, that can look like.
How to become unstuck
Beyond pre- and post-traumatic stress, some people, after a natural disaster, experience “post-traumatic growth.” These individuals “come through a significant disruption with the feeling of having gained something positive, such as stronger social relationships or specific skills,” according to the APA report.
This phenomenon makes it clear that debilitating disorders are not an inevitable outcome of trauma. An alternative is not only possible, but common. Most people are able to recover from traumatic events without developing PTSD or other lasting illnesses, and many report some type of personal, emotional or spiritual growth. That’s not to minimize the trauma itself, but rather to highlight the power of human resilience to transform something terrible into, well, something else.
But how? As with all things climate change, some of it is beyond your control — your access to recovery resources, for example — and you certainly can’t do any of it alone. But for every hardship, there are steps that you can take to build your resilience, avoid staying stuck in despair and adapt to the situation as healthily as possible. Here are a few.
1. Make room for grief
In the film Katrina Babies, director Edward Buckles Jr. interviews survivors of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans who were children at the time of the storm. Many of the interviewees become emotional, expressing that in two decades, no one had ever asked them about their experiences, or whether they were OK.
In the flurry of survival instincts, emotions can feel like an afterthought. But long after belongings have been retrieved and life has gone on, psychological wounds remain. These feelings are not only natural, but unavoidable — there’s no use shoving them down or pretending they don’t exist.
There is immense power in allowing yourself to grieve, validating your thoughts and feelings and finding a safe outlet for them, whether that’s a journal or a loved one, according to psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. Not just once, but on a continuous basis as grief ebbs and flows. Processing your emotions through art or music can also be incredibly therapeutic.
2. Turn anxiety into action
Anxiety is a powerhouse of energy. In the wild, fear floods your body with the stress hormones needed to survive deadly predators. In the context of the climate crisis, you can harness this energy to fuel some type of action for the future. For some, that might mean fighting: joining an organization or a civic action against climate change. For others, it could mean adaptation: prepping your home for emergencies, or sharing tools and skills with your community.
Research shows that for some people, taking action can be transformative for mental health, defusing the stress into a more manageable level and providing a sense of efficacy, meaning, connectedness and perhaps even hope. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, for example, people who shared disaster recovery information with others were more likely to experience post-traumatic growth rather than PTSD, according to the APA report.
Ed Gillespie, a director of Greenpeace UK, writes in a foreword to Anouchka Grose’s Guide to Eco-Anxiety that we can turn our “anxiety from unease to eagerness to do something.” Gillespie makes a similar distinction between despair — a bottomless, hopeless state — and grief. “We grieve because we love,” Gillespie writes. “And grief is not the paralysis of despair, it is the dynamic process … that takes you to a new place.”
3. Reconnect with nature
One of the tragedies of climate change is that it fractures our relationship with the natural world. Nature is now associated with destruction or unpredictability; it’s something you have to guard yourself against, rather than a refuge where you can find peace. Slowly reengaging with the natural world can help you learn to trust it again.
Spending time in natural spaces has long been shown to have psychological benefits, including lowering stress levels. There’s even a name for it: eco-therapy. Practices include walking or exercising in nature, working with plants or soil, and spending time with animals. This can also be an opportunity to practice skills that are reassuring to have in a changing climate, like growing food or building your own fires. You might enjoy a greater sense of confidence and safety in nature as you practice respecting and collaborating with it on your own terms.
4. Ask for help
Talking about your feelings and experiences also has the bonus benefit of making it easier to find support and like-minded people, which can make you feel less alone. If you’re not comfortable opening up to your own family or social circle, you might start by turning to social media or online communities to find mutual support. Your mental health and relationship to the planet are both incredibly personal, but there’s bound to be others whose thoughts resonate with yours.
Many people also benefit from professional support with climate anxiety, grief and post-traumatic stress, especially if it’s impacting your daily life. Climate therapy and climate-aware therapy is a growing subspecialty; but even if you can’t find a specialist in your area, other types of therapy could also be helpful.
A new normal
The current climate crisis is unprecedented, but it’s not the first time that humanity has lived through a period of dramatic upheaval. During our species’ time on Earth, colonization, slavery, plagues and super-volcanos have all caused mass disruption and forced us to change how we live. It’s hard to “heal from” something that isn’t over; on the contrary, in times like this, disruption and loss are simply part of our new normal.
Survival, in these contexts, means adaptation — and that includes psychological adaptation, experts say, making mental health a top priority in the climate crisis. We must become intimately comfortable with grief and fear, preparation and change. When we metabolize our difficult feelings rather than becoming stuck in them, we can make way for others, like hope, determination, creativity, love and even the joy that comes with living through this era.
Not sure where to get started? These organizations can help.
- Good Grief Network: A 10-step program and support group that helps people “metabolize collective grief, eco-distress and other heavy emotions” around climate change.
- Climate Psychology Alliance: An organization offering a growing directory of climate-aware therapists in the US.
- Climate Awakening: Small group sharing and listening sessions meant to “unleash the power of climate emotions” and help people turn pain into action.
- Facing It: A podcast about “the emotional burden of climate change,” by Jennifer Atkinson, an associate professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell.
- Eco-Anxious Stories: A collaborative Canada-based project featuring a range of resources intended to “normalize eco-anxiety and build capacity for change.”
- Generation Dread: A newsletter about “staying sane in the climate and wider ecological crisis,” authored by Britt Wray, who also wrote a book of the same name.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.