Mental health stresses of climate change begin to show

KINGSTON – Among the signs held by protesters at a climate strike in September was one that read, “I’m going to die from climate change!”

It was held by a serious-looking teenager listening to the speakers on the stage talk about the grim future that awaits them as the effects of climate change unfold.

Nearby other protestors held signs reading, “There is no planet B” and “Climate inaction is a crime.”

The speakers at that climate strike were followed by a New Orleans-style jazz funeral procession complete with a model of the planet Earth in an open casket.

The protest had a tone of impending doom, something that is matched by news about climate change, the vast majority of which is bad, and that steady stream of bad news is having an effect on people.

“Those kinds of things are emerging now, people see the effects that it is having,” said Aidan Tomkinson, 16, who organized the Fridays for Future rallies in Kingston this year, including the climate strike in September.

“People are having a really hard time because they are hearing all these terrible things happening in the world and they don’t know how to fix them. It’s a feeling of hopelessness.”

Canadian Mental Health Association described climate anxiety or eco-anxiety as “a deep fear of environmental doom and human catastrophe,” and while not everyone is susceptible, it’s a growing issue, something the agency said needs more attention from health professionals and governments.

“The climate emergency is not just a question of wildfires, or rising temperatures and rising oceans,” Fardous Hosseiny, CMHA’s interim national chief executive officer, said in a statement in October. “What will we do about rising despair and of the mental health impacts of climate trauma?”

In 2018, the Canadian Associations of Physicians for the Environment pointed out a gap in the research about the links between climate change and mental health.

Two years before that, a study in the United States by researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that specific demographic and socioeconomic groups were at greater risk of mental health

“Many people will experience adverse mental health outcomes and social impacts from the threat of climate change, the perceived direct experience of climate change, and changes to one’s local environment,” the report stated. “Media and popular culture representations of climate change influence stress responses and mental health and well-being.”

Even in Kingston, somewhat removed from the most dire effects of climate change, the issue is having an impact on peoples’ mental health, and the despair, grief, fear and anger is often felt most acutely by young people.

“I have a teenage son who just really feels pissed off that he can’t just be thinking of all of the dreams of his possible future,” said Kingston therapist Sarah Knight, who organizes workshops to help people with through their emotions around climate change.

“He now has to factor in how the world is going to change in his life and what that means for him, and somehow he is supposed to be doing something about it.”

There are big differences between how young people and adults process their emotions, Knight said.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to the negative mental health effects of climate change because they have not yet learned the habits that allow them to put aside the stream of bad news and go about their daily routines, Knight said, and youth have fewer filters between their emotions and what they express in public.

“There is a big disconnect between how present the young people are to the feelings that they actually have, and the lack of awareness with most adults with what they are feeling,” Knight said.

“Grown-ups are very, very good at not feeling things that they really need to feel,” she said. “We are really good at disconnecting from the things that we need to feel.”

That disconnect can translate into loneliness and isolation as people are unable to reconcile their own fears about climate change and the lack of action they are seeing by people and governments around them.

“What they actually feel is so far removed from the response,” Knight said.

Even Tomlinson had to step back a little from her activism for the sake of her emotional health.

“I had to take a month off because we were all feeling burned out,” she said. “After the Sept. 20 strike, we were all saying, ‘Wow, that was a lot of work.’

“You won’t work well if you are burned out. You have to stay healthy to actually be able to act.”

And putting anxiety into action is key not only to getting the message out but also keeping morale up.

“People don’t want to have a future because there is not going to be a future. That is their mindset,” Tomkinson added. “If you are just going to die, why are you going to do all this, right?

“That is why we are urging people to act, and come to the strikes, and come get involved in local organizations because that relieves that feeling of hopelessness because you are doing something.

“A lot of people I talk to come to the strikes to see that there are other people that are doing something.I’m hoping that if they see a bunch of their peers striking and being upset and frustrated and angry that they will feel that as well and continue to act.”

Action is the best antidote for anxiety, said climate activist William Sanderson, 20, of Perth Road, who recently returned from a week-long trip to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) in Madrid.

“Especially for young people, it definitely is stressful and an anxiety-inducing reality, the climate situation, but at the same time giving up and not trying to do something won’t really help the problem,” said Sanderson, a third-year Western University student. “Trying to do something is better than not doing anything at all.”

Despite the immensity of the task, Sanderson’s experience at the climate conference left him confident that climate change can be overcome.

“It’s tough when you hear all these bad reports and not necessarily positive news to keep hopeful,” he said.

“At the end of the day humans have always solved really challenging problems in the past and this is another set of very, very challenging problems that we will be able to fix.”


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