On climate anxiety and ecological grief
Lately I’ve been anxious and angry. It’s climate change. The direct impacts and latest data and charts are triggering my unease. But it's not just me. More and more people are suffering from climate anxiety and ecological grief. Climate change is taking a growing toll on mental health. And with fossil fuel emissions still growing and policymakers focused at best on climate delay rather than deep and immediate action, it’s going to get worse.
We need to start dealing seriously with the mental impacts of climate change. A growing body of evidence links climate change to adverse mental health outcomes. Climate impacts such as extreme weather events and gradual environmental shifts, are contributing to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance abuse. Recognising and addressing these impacts is crucial for building our emotional resilience for climate change. The American Psychological Association’s Mental Health and Our Climate report of 2021 is worth a read.
Devastating climate events like bushfires, floods and storms directly lead to trauma and mental health impacts. Studies show individuals exposed to events like bushfires in Australia, California and Canada experience PTSD, anxiety, depression, and ecological grief. The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events like these makes it harder for people to recover and avoid repeated traumatic experiences. Science from the US shows climate-related disasters increase suicide rates. There is a cumulative toll.
Creeping and embedded environmental impacts of climate change, such as prolonged droughts and growing and persistent heatwaves, trigger uncertainty and hopelessness. These changes affect us all but can have particularly strong effects on individuals and communities who depend on environmental predictability. Studies show a correlation between drought exposure and higher rates of suicide, especially in rural areas. With the global climate system about to hit the 1.5 degree threshold and more tipping points emerging, suicide rates are on the rise and predicted to increase further.
Climate anxiety, characterised by persistent concerns, worries, and anger about environmental changes, is increasingly prevalent. I know I suffer from it. Awareness of climate change and its irreversible impacts can lead to anxiety and despair, particularly when emissions keep rising and policy responses are woefully inadequate. Younger generations are expressing anger and frustration. A peer-reviewed scientific study published in the Lancet showed more than 80% of Gen Z believe society has failed to take care of the planet. But they are not alone. Groups like the Knitting Nannas are also emerging. Polls show a significant portion of the population experiences climate anxiety.
Ecological grief in Indigenous communities cannot be underestimated. Indigenous peoples’ deep and interconnected relationships with Nature pose significant mental health risks as the climate changes and ecosystems collapse. Cultural practices, maintenance of traditional knowledge, and access to traditional lands is already being disrupted globally. This is having profound psychological and emotional effects on individuals and communities. The Canadian documentary Lament for the Land explains Inuit feelings of lost identity affecting their mental health, as climate change has changed their homelands before their eyes. Australia is not exempt. We have already learned from the past policies of removal, for example, that when Indigenous Australians lose connection to country, there is a deep sense of sorrow, grief, and disconnection from cultural heritage and identity. And there are transgenerational impacts.
Finally, as George Monbiot has recently pointed out, climate change is whipping up facisism and fostering hate and social division. Climate science denial, which was diminishing, is resurfacing with a vengeance. Environmental scientists, activists and concerned citizens face unfounded hate, accusations and character assassination. This structural violence has mental health impacts for us all.
It's time to acknowledge and address the profound mental health impacts of climate change. The evidence of its links to adverse mental health outcomes is growing. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance abuse are among the consequences. Climate induced disasters are directly traumatic and exacerbate mental health conditions. Slower-burn impacts, such as droughts and desertification, trigger uncertainty and hopelessness. Climate anxiety is increasingly prevalent. Indigenous communities, and anyone with emotional or spiritual connections to nature, face significant challenges associated with ecological grief. And to top it off, fascism and socially divisive politics arising from climate change are compounding the impacts. To build emotional resilience and foster well-being, we must recognise and address the mental toll climate change takes on each of us, our communities, and society as a whole. And of course, to deal with the issue at its source, we must take deep and immediate action for a safe climate and a more sustainable and resilient future. That includes Australia!