Climate change and mental health
Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski
If you’re thinking about having kids anytime soon, you might also be wondering—or even intensely worrying—about how your choice could affect our changing planet.
In a recent study of more than 600 Americans between the ages of 27 and 45, nearly 60% reported feeling “very” or “extremely” concerned about the carbon footprint associated with having children. More than 96% reported being “very” or “extremely” concerned about the well-being of their existing or hypothetical kids in a world where climate change is a stark reality.1
Welcome to the era of eco-anxiety
“Eco-anxiety” is just what it sounds like: a sense of deep fear and worry about anything associated with global climate change: extreme weather, increased air pollution, accumulating garbage in our oceans, stress on animal species, deforestation, water shortages, increasing sea levels, and warming temperatures, just to name a few concerns.
We all experience eco-anxiety in different ways because of the personal relationship we have with the environment. This type of anxiety might look like:
- A parent worrying about his daughter’s upcoming move to California because of the increase in wildfires
- A seven-year-old watching an educational documentary about polar bears and feeling sad to learn that the species is at risk of going extinct
- A seventh-generation farmer wrestling with the decision to sell her farm after several years of struggling to adapt to extreme weather conditions
Eco-anxiety vs. eco-grief
When we worry about aspects of the environment that could change or be lost in the future, we experience eco-anxiety. “Eco-grief,” on the other hand, is a related term used to describe how we feel when we recognize what has already been (or is in the process of being) changed or lost.
As an example of eco-grief, consider Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and its mass coral bleaching. In a 2019 study, local participants were asked to consider the ecological loss that took place across the reefs, then rate their grief level on a 10-point scale (where 10 was the highest).2 Over half of local residents, tourists, tourist workers, and a quarter of those in the fishing industry reported grief levels of 8, 9, or 10.
The mental health effects of climate change
Climate-related news, events, extreme weather, and natural disasters can have both short and long-term effects on mental health. These might include:
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Increased feelings of suicide
- Increased alcohols consumption and substance abuse
- Decreased feelings of autonomy and control
- Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
Who is most impacted by climate change?
Anyone can experience mental health problems related to climate change, but younger generations tend to struggle with them more. According to a recent survey conducted by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and New Scientist magazine, just one out of five Baby Boomers believed there was no point in changing their behavior to help climate change, compared with one-third of Generation Z participants.3
Other groups at increased risk of experiencing climate-related mental health problems include:
- Elderly people who rely on medical services, live alone, struggle with age-related mental decline such as dementia, and have mobility issues
- Children who are learning about the realities of climate change from their parents, teachers, and the media
- Pregnant people who struggle with mobility limitations and require medical care
- People with disabilities and chronic illnesses who have physical and mental limitations and/or require medical services People with mental health disorders whose conditions may be worsened by the effects of a climate disaster
- Developing nations that need to repair damages and send aid to people affected by climate crises
- Indigenous communities who may experience burnout if they feel like they’re fighting alone, or who may be put in jeopardy if climate change affects their ability to continue living safely on their land
- People living on lower incomes who can’t afford to evacuate or move from their current home due to a climate crisis
- Racial, ethnic, and religious minorities who have historically been forced to live in areas more prone to flooding, wildfires, pollution, and other ecological disasters
Strengthening your mental health during climate change
There’s no denying that climate change affects people on a personal level. To fend off eco-anxiety and become more mentally and emotionally resilient, try these tips:
Talk about it. Checking in with a friend, family member, or mental health professional can help you work through your feelings and explore healthy ways to cope.
Educate yourself. Instead of letting your mind run wild with fear, make a commitment to learn about topics that are important to you from sources rooted in objectivity and backed by scientific research.
Make eco-friendly lifestyle changes. Taking small but meaningful actions on an individual basis can be enough to reduce feelings of anxiety. Consider shopping for sustainably produced clothing, starting to compost in your backyard, eating less red meat, or replacing your old appliances with energy-efficient ones.
Get involved with your community. People can do amazing things when they come together in support of a common cause. Try researching environmental organizations in your local area to connect, learn, and contribute your own ideas or skills.
Create a plan for extreme weather. If you live in an area that’s at risk of extreme weather, you can put your mind at ease by having a plan in place. Figure out what steps you should take, what supplies you should have, and what everybody in your household should do to help each other stay safe.
Help children work through their feelings. If you’re a parent or loved one of a child who has expressed concern about something related to climate change, don’t brush it off or minimize their feelings. Discuss their concerns with them, help them seek out accurate information, and encourage them to open up their minds to new ways of thinking about the problem.
Take care of yourself
Taking care of your mental health before, during, and after an event related to climate change can help you feel better. If you’re struggling with climate anxiety, consider reaching out to a therapist to get professional help.
Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.
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