How to stay sane in the face of climate change

Physical consequences aren’t the only danger of the climate crisis.

Greenpeace activists form the word hope. CREDIT: AP Photo/Israel Leal
Greenpeace activists form the word hope. CREDIT: AP Photo/Israel Leal

On an unusually hot morning in Washington, D.C., particularly for early November, sunlight beamed through the large windows at the American Psychological Association’s headquarters, framing the long expanse of the National Mall and the Washington Monument off in the distance. The setting was peaceful, but tensions, like the outside temperature, ran high: the U.S. presidential election was just five days away, and the media cycle — already whipped into a frenzy by months of acerbic news — had been punctuated by a barrage of unprecedented FBI leaks that seemed to threaten the very foundation of the democratic election.

Inside one of the building’s airy conference rooms, Bob Doppelt, executive director of the Resource Innovation Group, rose to address a group of about 50 people. They were there, he reminded them, for a first-of-its-kind conference, one that had attracted participants from all over the world. He lead the group in a brief exercise in meditation — an unorthodox beginning, perhaps, for some conferences — asking attendees to close their eyes, notice their breath, notice their thoughts, notice their sensations.

Breathe. Relax. Be present in the moment.

CREDIT: Natasha Geiling
CREDIT: Natasha Geiling

Then, after everyone had taken their last deep breath and opened their eyes and brought themselves back to the sunny room, Doppelt launched into the subject on everyone’s mind: how to stay sane in the face of climate change.

“Psychological traumas of more frequent storms, floods, and fires associated with climate change, as well as toxic stresses — long term heat waves and droughts, food shortages, involuntary migration, loss of community and breakdown of culture — are eroding personal protective systems, amplifying preexisting mental health problems and creating new mental health issues,” Doppelt said, rattling a litany of climate-related stressors in a way that was both matter-of-fact and chilling.

Climate change has a way of leaving people feeling both helpless and hopeless, he continued. And if that doesn’t change — if the problem is not addressed, or the mental impacts of the problem are ignored — humans could be in for more than just droughts and food shortages and more severe storms.

“If left unaddressed,” Doppelt said, “these harmful human reactions to climate change are likely to be as bad or worse than the physical impacts.”

The impacts of climate change, from shrinking lakes and glaciers to crop failure. CREDIT: (From left) USGS via AP; AP Photo/Manuel Valdes; AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File
The impacts of climate change, from shrinking lakes and glaciers to crop failure. CREDIT: (From left) USGS via AP; AP Photo/Manuel Valdes; AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File

The physical impacts of climate change are numerous, terrifying, and well-documented. Warming temperatures will likely drive more extreme precipitation events, raising the potential for devastating storms and floods. Drought will plague large stretches of the country, and the world, hitting some of the most agriculturally productive areas the hardest, and potentially leading to widespread food insecurity. Rapidly melting ice in Antarctica, the Arctic, and Greenland threaten to drive up sea level, making vast areas of the world’s coasts uninhabitable. Islands will disappear. Animals will be pushed out of their niche habitats, and ones that can’t migrate or adapt will go extinct. Rising temperatures will help vectors of infectious disease thrive in previously inhospitable conditions, leading to public health risks around the world.

But focusing merely on the physical impacts of climate change fails to take into account the mental and spiritual toll that living through extreme weather disasters, or even just dealing with the relentless stream of apocalyptic-seeming climate news, can have on a person. And that toll is very, very real.

The mental health consequences of climate change, according to U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Climate and Health Assessment, can range from relatively minor — minimal stress, fleeting anxiety — to full-on clinical disorders like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. And for people with preexisting mental health conditions, the trauma of extreme weather disasters can be even more striking: A study looking at veterans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for instance, found that those with preexisting PTSD were 11.9 times more likely to screen for a new mental illness. Another study on the rate of suicide in Miami-Dade County in the six months following 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, found that the average rate of suicide doubled throughout the county to two per month in the wake of the hurricane, compared with one per month before.

Survivors waiting to be rescued from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip, Pool, File
Survivors waiting to be rescued from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip, Pool, File

Other studies have shown that, when faced with a disaster that involves a significant loss — of home, or property, or life — survivors are often prone to depression and general anxiety. These are consequences that are likely to increase as global warming continues to drive stronger and more extreme weather events: A 2015 study published in the Lancet called mental health disorders associated with climate change some of the most dangerous “indirect” health impacts of global warming.

These impacts tend to get far less attention than the physical consequences associated with climate change, but they are no less insidious. And, like the physical destruction caused by climate change, mental health impacts tend to affect populations that are uniquely vulnerable: coastal communities, poor communities, the very young, or the very old.

To make matters worse, traditional mental health and trauma support systems aren’t adequately prepared, in many cases, to deal with the kinds of mental health impacts from climate change. As Doppelt explained, most mental health systems are prepared only to help stabilize communities during and in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. But if global carbon pollution continues to increase, driving more prevalent climate catastrophes, mental health systems will need to adjust to deal with the persistent mental trauma that comes with living in the face of climate change.

“The public needs to know the truth in no uncertain terms.”

Merely thinking about the realities of climate change can be really scary. The problem is so vast, and manifests on such a massive scale, that it can leave a person feeling hopeless and paralyzed. But instead of building walls of denial to shut out the frightening reality of climate change, Lise van Susteren, a psychiatrist and environmental activist who has spent years studying the links between climate change and mental health, says it’s incredibly important to face the fear of climate change — and channel that fear into action.

“The public needs to know the truth in no uncertain terms,” van Susteren, who presented at the resilience conference, said in a subsequent interview. Don’t sugarcoat the facts about climate change — as scary as they might be. Van Susteren explained that she struggles with people who want to focus solely on the benefits of climate action, like cleaner air or improved health. Those are important, she said, but avoiding the cause is like a doctor obscuring a patient’s diagnosis and instead concentrating on the benefits of treatment.

“You have to say in no uncertain terms how bad the situation is. You don’t infantilize people,” she said.

But before people let their fear turn to hopelessness, van Susteren said, it’s critical to tell them that there are actionable things they can do, in their everyday life, to make the problem a little smaller. Breaking the big problem down into manageable steps — measuring your own carbon footprint, putting solar panels on your own home, or paying for carbon offsets to counteract your own travel — can help a person take their fear and transfer that energy into positive action. And that in turn can help mitigate the mental trauma of the reality of climate change.

“You take all the energy of the panic and the fear and you say, here is what we can do,” van Susteren said. “You have to take that energy, because there is no motivation to change if things aren’t bad. People are much more averse to what they are losing — and what they are predicted to lose — than what they stand to gain.”

“You take all the energy of the panic and the fear and you say, here is what we can do.”

It’s the same phenomenon — the idea of coping with fear by putting that energy into action — that has driven record numbers of donations to progressive organizations like Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Sierra Club, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.

But perhaps one of the easiest ways to deal with the mental health trauma associated with climate change is simply talking about it — with people who understand and accept the scientific consensus on the issue, and especially with people who don’t.

The idea that most Americans rarely, if ever, talk about climate change with others, is a real phenomenon borne out by statistics. A study from George Mason University (GMU) and Yale University found that while two out of three Americans are at least moderately interested in climate change, 70 percent don’t make it a point of talking about climate change with the people they know. A quarter of Americans only hear people talk about climate change a few times a year — and another quarter of Americans never hear anyone mention it.

Climate silence is bad for climate policy, because it gives the appearance that climate change isn’t as much of a priority for voters as issues that get more vocal attention, like gun rights or health care or the economy. But climate silence is also dangerous for mental health because it forces people to cope with the stressors of climate change in a way that is incredibly isolating, and it prevents people from forming the kinds of community bonds that have been proven to be the most helpful in rebuilding resilience directly after a climate catastrophe.

Olivia Loesner, 16, hugs her uncle, Little Ferry Deputy Fire Chief John Ruff, after she was brought from her flooded home in a boat in Little Ferry, N.J., Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in the wake of superstorm Sandy. CREDIT: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
Olivia Loesner, 16, hugs her uncle, Little Ferry Deputy Fire Chief John Ruff, after she was brought from her flooded home in a boat in Little Ferry, N.J., Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in the wake of superstorm Sandy. CREDIT: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

“Suffering alone is much more grievous to our psyche than connecting with others,” van Susteren said. “Being in a community of people who share your concerns is the first step. It helps to know you’re not alone.”

But talking about climate change — about the fears and stress that come with the understanding that mankind is, perhaps irreversibly, altering the planet — does more than help people feel less alone. It also helps create stronger bonds to community, which is something that studies have shown can help people bounce back quicker when a devastating climate event, like a major flood or a crippling drought, takes place.

The idea that strong community ties could be related to climate resilience came to Daniel Aldrich, co-director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program at Northeastern University, out of a personal trauma. He and his family lived in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit; after the hurricane, they left and moved to Boston. But Aldrich wanted to know what it was that brought people back to places that had been hit with catastrophe — why did some communities stay intact after disasters while others dissipated?

Refugees, including 53 who were saved from a retirement home during the tsunami, take shelter inside a school gym in the leveled city of Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, after the 2011 earthquake. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Guttenfelder
Refugees, including 53 who were saved from a retirement home during the tsunami, take shelter inside a school gym in the leveled city of Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, after the 2011 earthquake. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Guttenfelder

In 2007, Aldrich moved to Japan to study how communities rebuilt after disasters, studying earthquakes that had taken place in 1995 and 1923. In 2012, he went to Japan for a second time, to study how communities dealt with the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that killed 16,000 people and caused the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. What he found was that the more tight-knit the community before the disaster, the better chance it had of successfully rebuilding after the disaster. Moreover, communities with close ties had higher survival rates for at-risk populations, like the sick and the elderly, because in those communities, people already knew who needed help — they were able to act quickly, and had the trust necessary to help their neighbors in a time of crisis.

“What can you do? Get to know your neighbors!” Aldrich told the audience during the resilience conference. “Can you name 10 neighbors’ last names?”

“The first line of responders are often our neighbors,” he added. “Our job should be to get to know them.”

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a few common reactions have emerged: hand-wringing over the idea that so many along the coasts don’t understand the worries of those who populate the country’s heartland; anxiety from entire communities — women, people of color, people with disabilities, basically anyone who isn’t white, straight, or male — that the new president’s policies will endanger their civil liberties and everyday safety; a low-lying, constant stress that this election could signal some kind of major fissure in our country’s most fundamental democratic structures.

“The first line of responders are often our neighbors. Our job should be to get to know them.”

It’s not dissimilar, in many ways, to the issues that were discussed in that bright room on that unseasonably warm November day, when the stress of the election loomed in the background. Towards the end of the conference’s first day, the election even became a distinct topic of conversation. A panelist described an interaction she had with her cab driver, who was from Afghanistan, on her way to the event. One candidate’s rhetoric, he had told her, was making him feel particularly unsafe — and that constant stress was starting to take its toll on his health.

As the conference began to wrap up, an audience member rose for the day’s final question. It had been a long day of discussions about chronic traumas, underlying stressors, and harsh realities about the climate crisis. But the audience member didn’t seem stressed. The day, she said, had actually been of help to her because talking about it made her feel less isolated, less alone.

“I didn’t feel terrible, I didn’t feel awful,” she said. “Thank goodness we are talking about this. I am so much less lonely in this room than I am in most of my life.”

Climate change, like a lot of things, is scary. But if mental health professionals a tip for coping, it seems to be this: Talk about it. Share your feelings. And remember that we are all in this together.