Is ‘Climate Despair’ Making People Depressed?

Published on: 09 Sep 2019
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Over time it has become increasingly clear that climate change is taking a toll on our planet — but what about our mental health? To start, more people than ever believe that climate change is an issue to be concerned about. According to a 2018 survey administered by Yale, about six in ten Americans (62%) say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming and about one in five (21%) are “very worried” about it, nearly double the number who were “very worried” in a similar study conducted in 2015. Today’s generation is experiencing more mental health issues than ever – some of it is attributed to uncertainty about the future of the earth.

Not only does climate change impacts people’s mental health in acute ways, but chronically, too. For example, in a report by the American Psychological Association about climate change and mental health, researchers identified a list of more than ten psychological consequences due to climate change. This list includes PTSD, depression, anxiety, and helplessness. There are even new terms cropping up such as “solastalgia,” “climate grief,” and “ecoanxiety” to help describe how people are uniquely experiencing the mental health impact of climate change.

The Mental Health Impact of Feeling Powerless

An overall sense of powerlessness seems to be a driving force to the feelings of despair people have been experiencing when they consider climate change. As Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S, and Ohio-based Talkspace therapist shared, “It seems like each day, we hear about a new and disturbing trend related to climate change.” She adds, “From that, we can often feel a sense of fear and, with that fear, often comes a feeling of powerlessness.”

Feeling powerless is a difficult emotional place to be, which is why O’Neill focuses on helping her clients take their power back. While you may not be able to get rid of your fear and anxiety entirely, there are ways you can use these to fuel positive changes at home, at work, and in your community. Among countless ways you can get involved, O’Neill suggests introducing more environmentally friendly practices into your own life, talking to friends about ways they can be more environmentally conscious in their life, and perhaps getting involved in your community or running for political office.

How to Avoid Getting Overwhelmed

The sheer magnitude of climate change can be overwhelming. Jill Daino, LCSW, and Talkspace therapist, finds that stress about climate change is particularly challenging because much of it is truly out of any one person’s control. She warns that given the magnitude of the problem, people may get so overwhelmed that they become apathetic and think there is no solution at all.

How can you stay involved without getting overwhelmed? “As with any large task, breaking it down into manageable pieces is the key to success,” said Daino. “So while a client may want to heal the world, the goal is to help them find ways to get involved that feel satisfying, even in the face of limits.”

O’Neill focuses on helping her clients avoid catastrophizing, or focusing exclusively on the negative. “Yes, some of the research about climate change is alarming. And yes, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned,” she said. “At the same time, there’s a dedicated group of researchers actively working to find solutions for some of these imminent concerns.” When possible, O’Neill suggests trying to shift your focus from the doom and gloom perspective of the future to the potential benefits of increased attention on environmental concerns.

The Importance of Self-Care

Self-care is a vital component to fighting any cause, especially one as massive as climate change. This is one of the reasons why Daimo encourages her clients to consciously take breaks. “It can be tempting to read every new report that comes out or to go down the seemingly endless rabbit hole of terrifying news stories about climate change,” she said. To help create boundaries for yourself, Daimo suggests setting a time limit, such as 30 minutes, for how much news you’ll read in one day and then switching gears to something else once the time is up.

There are also programs popping up at places like the Good Grief Network that help people cope with feelings of depression, anxiety, and grief over the state of the climate. Taking advantage of these types of resources will inevitably help you to weather this difficult time with like-minded friends and a supportive network.

From forest fires and record-high temperatures to deadly hurricanes and landslides, we can no longer ignore the fact that the fate of the planet is in jeopardy. As scary as it may seem, it is important to remember that you are only one person. Do what you can to get involved and spread the word, but don’t forget to take care of yourself in the process.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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