Protecting mental health amidst the climate crisis 

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Constant industrialization and development of urban areas has lead to an increase in factors that are directly destroying the planet’s ecosystems. In recent years, estimates have been calculated that show the Earth could suffer irreversible damage within a fairly short amount of time. Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.

Subtly but surely there has been a shift in the discourse regarding climate change: the potential for mass extinction has transformed from a matter of science fiction to one of distant reality to one that has already been put in motion. The effects of fossil fuels and global warming are already profoundly impacting those in the Global South, from flooding to wildfires to pollution that requires a facial covering to breathe. However, climate change will soon impact the privileged as well, from crowding, to resource wars, to potential release of viruses from melting permafrost such as bubonic plague and smallpox, according to Vox. There is a strong possibility this will become the sixth mass extinction event, wiping humanity from a globe that is no longer sympathetic to its pleas. 

Now what? 

You can reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible by driving less and eating less meat, you can write to governmental representatives and participate in protests. However, many feel unable to take action, trapped in a phenomenon increasingly recognized as “climate grief,” or the incomprehensible sense of loss felt due to the tragic trajectory of our planet. A New York Times global survey of young people found more than half of respondents between the ages of 16 and 25 felt “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty” about climate change and believed that “humanity is doomed” in the future. This grief can exacerbate mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, creating debilitating symptoms that interfere with function. 

If we are expected to fight climate change, we must protect our physical and mental health. But how do we do that when one of the primary skills learned in therapy is how to check the facts and challenge notions of impending doom? In this case, the facts support the worry. A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report asserts we must take radical action to limit climate change to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, however, a Daily Campus article states we are more realistically expected to experience an increase of 8.5 degrees Celsius during the 21st century. 

Many who are ecologically active eventually begin to feel “climate grief,” or a sense of sadness and worry due to the projected future of the planet. This feeling is completely valid, but it is important to not let it control one’s life. Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels.

A new branch of therapy is emerging that is dedicated to climate grief and allowing one to live with the truth of the science without losing ability to function in everyday life. There is currently little empirical evidence on effective treatments, but the field is growing rapidly. The Climate Psychology Alliance provides an online directory of therapists educated in climate, and the Good Grief Network, a support network based on 12-step addiction programs, has created more than 50 groups, and professional certifications on climate psychology have begun to arise, according to the New York Times. Some argue that climate change is a highly politicized issue and should not be discussed by therapists, however, this argument fails to account for the vast need patients have for this type of support. 

However, it is crucial that therapies do not train patients to dismiss their worries but rather teach them how to coexist with them. There is a technique in dialectical behavioral therapy called radical acceptance, which is exactly what it sounds like: accepting the truth about something in a way that is counterintuitive, challenging and radical. This does not mean accepting that climate change is inevitable and failing to act; rather, this is a disciplined way of living with terrifying truths without them ruling and ruining your life.  

Perhaps those of us living with climate anxiety are destined to live the story of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a character in Greek mythology who is punished by Zeus, forced to push a boulder up a hill each day only for the rock to tumble to the ground that night. Training the mind to radically accept the truth of the climate crisis will require daily effort and may never feel natural, however, it is necessary to be able to live functionally with the problem in order to fix it.  

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