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How to Talk About Climate Change and Its Effects on Mental Health

By: Zana Van Der Smissen, LPC, NCC

The reality that we face as humans is that the earth is warming up and with that, severe weather such as flooding, heat waves and natural disasters will be more frequent. Now, how these things might affect people will be different depending on where you live, your experiences and your demographics. However, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, 141 countries will be faced with an ecological threat by 2050 (IEP, 2020). Meaning this will be a reality for many but how does that affect our mental health? 

In recent years, community psychologists and researchers have come together to start talking about the words we can use to describe the anxiety and fear surrounding climate change and the uncertainties it brings. To understand how climate change on a global scale can be affecting you on an individual level, we need to understand the three levels of community psychology. If you picture a dart board, the bullseye or center is you as an individual. Depending on your values, your beliefs and thoughts on climate change, you might experience symptoms of anxiety, stress or depression in thinking about the future. The first ring around you is called microsystems and are the people and organizations that have direct contact with you. This could be your workplace or your family and friends that might have experienced a natural disaster and have spoken to you about their grief and trauma. The final and most outer ring is that of macrosystems. This ring includes what might be happening on a larger scale such as living in the US and the government and culture that comes along with that. There are always influences from society that will impact our emotions and in turn our mental health. 

So what does climate change have to do with microsystems and macrosystems? Well, this is an event that is taking place across the globe. No matter where you are in the world, people are experiencing it which means we need to talk about it. Some of the main words that have been created to pinpoint emotions surrounding this topic are:

  • Solastalgia
  • Climate anxiety or Eco-anxiety
  • Ecological Grief

Firstly, Solastalgia is defined as “the distress humans feel about the place we live” and or the “pain associated with the loss of one’s home” (Albrecht, 2006). This term coined by Glenn Albrecht was created to demonstrate how as humans, we are connected to our environment so the pain the ecosystem experiences is something that is shared with us. This distress can be used to describe the emotions when losing a culture that is dependent on the environment as well. 

Climate Anxiety or Eco-anxiety is a concept that is still being re-defined and adjusted by researchers, however the main idea is that it describes the distress that you might feel about the future of the human race and the planet. There are four reasons why you might experience climate anxiety. The first reason is that you might feel threatened by climate change and how it will impact your safety in your home or area. The second reason is that there is a worry surrounding the unknown of what could happen with the warming of our planet. The third reason is that it is unpredictable. Natural disasters can be measured to a certain extent on when they will be present but there are still unknown variables. The final reason is that climate change is uncontrollable and so this might lead to feelings of anxiety and feeling like the small guy going against the big corporate leaders to slow down climate change. 

The final key term is ecological grief which describes the emotions that might come up for you when looking at the loss of land and species due to climate change. Researchers, Cunsolo & Ellis (2018), have identified that there are three forms of ecological grief; 1) the physical loss of life through trees, plants and animals, 2) the anticipated grief for the endangered species left on the planet and 3) the grief related to the loss of identity.

All these terms are just a starting point to begin talking about climate change and how it makes us feel individually and collectively. Know that if you are feeling this anxiety, stress or grief about our planet, you are not alone. Talk to friends or peers about what is going on in the world and their feelings about it! Reach out to the community and if you need additional support, talk to a counselor to start identifying what might be coming up for you. 

Institute for Economics and Peace. (2020). Global Peace Index of 2020: Measuring Peace in a Complex World. Sydney, Australia.http://visionofhumanity.org/reports

Cunsolo, A., & Ellis, N. (2018). Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Climate Change, 8(4), 275–281. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0092-2

Albrecht, G. (2006). Solastalgia. Alternatives Journal, 32(4/5), 34-36.

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