Emily Leary on how to handle the mental health effects of eco-anxiety…
A new phenomenon is hitting the mental health space. More and more people – especially millennials and Gen Zs – are saying they feel a sense impending doom over the state of the planet, and it’s not an unfounded fear. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in late 2018 that the world has 12 years to halve our emissions or else face uncontrollable climate change. If that’s not an anxiety-inducing warning; nothing is.
According to the World Health Organisation, climate change is “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st Century”. The organisation is talking primarily about physical health, but more and more experts are starting to point to climate change as a new culprit for triggering mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. While it’s not recognised as an official condition in the DSM-5, there are plenty of experts that are saying it: yes, eco-anxiety is a thing.
For me, I’m starting to recognise that the closer you are to a weather disaster, the more eco-anxiety starts to become entrenched in your everyday life. Since September, Australia has been ravaged by relentless bushfires, and we’re yet to see even a hint of the end to it, with two more months of summer left to go.
To date, at least 27 people have been killed, over 1800 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales alone and more than one billion native animals have been killed. It’s difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of how much land has been eradicated, but as of January 11, an estimated 10 million hectares have been burned across Australia – an area larger than Belgium and Switzerland combined.
Everywhere you look, there’s media coverage of the catastrophe, paired with politicians responding to the disaster terribly. Despite the amazing support and donations coming in from all corners of the globe, a lack of prompt emergency action and appropriate empathic reactions from those with power and responsibility are doing well to heighten the growing anxiety and frustration. Who do we have to rely on? Who will save us? It appears the answer is: who knows?
While living in Sydney, which on many days is choking through the highly hazardous smoke blowing in from the affected areas, I’m torn apart emotionally by the images online. Those of the toddler receiving a medal of honour for his father who died fighting the fires, or the footage of hundreds of bandaged koalas and the heartbreaking shot of a dead kangaroo, trapped in a wire fence.
Extreme weather caused by climate change can trigger anxiety and depression in those near to or directly affected by the events. But, you don’t need to be affected by, or even close to the chaos to feel the a cloud of unease about climate change. Emma, 24 is even reconsidering having children one day because she’s afraid of the effects climate change could have on her future family –
“I don’t want my children to ever have to worry about the basic necessities, like food, water and shelter. But with the way the world is going right now – even in a first world country – I can’t guarantee they will always have that kind of security.”
Meanwhile, Steph, 27, is kept up late at night with panic attacks triggered by her dooming thoughts about the climate crisis –
“I try to go about my day but I can’t help thinking that there’s not much point plodding along if we’re all running the world into the ground anyway. Sometimes, when I watch the news, I start to get heart palpitations from all the images of destruction. I use my keep cup, I recycle and take short showers, but there’s only so much we can do if the big corporations and governments aren’t doing enough.”
This level of despair over the earth’s deteriorating condition, can’t be underestimated. It’s palpable. And in the last six weeks, I’ve felt eco-anxiety operating in the undercurrents of everyday interactions; whether it’s worried conversations with friends and co-workers, or seeing a fellow commuter welling up as they scroll and stop on a video of a koala on fire.
So, what can we do about eco-anxiety? Well, the Australian Psychological Society says to feel more purposeful and less helpless about the situation, you can take more action on climate change. This isn’t a cop out, as every good action does make a difference, and it’s certainly better than doing nothing. They also say you should take a break from consuming media when you need to and keep up healthy routines, which is what I’ve been trying to do.
If you try to tackle everything and follow every disaster, you’ll quickly feel overwhelmed. So, try to know when tuning in is helping you be informed about the climate crisis, so that you can better help take action. At the same time, try to recognise when your media consumption habits are becoming damaging and unhelpful. When it is, turn off your smartphone and do something positive for yourself to help combat your eco-anxiety. There’s also books you can read on the topic, to help you battle the symptoms associated with climate anxiety.
Finally, it’s worth noting that everyone should be voting more consciously than ever before. Figures like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison are clearly not leading the western world in the right direction. It’s up to the younger generation of voters, like millennials and Gen Zs, (the ones most likely to feel eco-anxiety), to vote more consciously and put the environment at the top of their priority list when it comes to reviewing election policies.
Sure, you can prioritise economic growth above climate change action all you want, but I agree with Bette Midler: What good is an economy in an uninhabitable country? What good is any kind of prosperity in a crumbling world?
Words: Emily Leary