Kiersten Little, 31, is among the 40% percent of young people around the globe who are so distressed and anxious about climate change that they are hesitant to have children.
“I feel very angry…at past generations and current ones for the poor choices they have made for the health of this planet,” she wrote in a post on Conceivable Future, an organization spotlighting the impact of climate on reproductive decisions. “Angry at our selfish, capitalist society and all the greedy corporations out there that are so incredibly short sighted. I feel that I could absolutely be happy in my life without a child, but I wanted the CHOICE. I do not feel like I have a choice…I am so sad about this and do not know how to reconcile my feelings.”
When I reached out to Little, a social and clinical research specialist in public health in North Carolina, to hear more, she said she’d always imagined having a family. But on a road trip in 2020 with her husband, “very tangible things” hit her – “like temperatures over 100 degrees in Northern Montana outside Glacier National Park and whole forests burned to the ground.” She came to the painful realization that she cannot bring children into this world. “It’s a pretty isolating thing to be experiencing,” she concluded.
Even among activists committed to the battle against global warming, worry about the earth’s future has proven so crippling that some have sunk into depression or even committed suicide. David Buckel, 60, a nationally recognized civil rights lawyer, turned to environmental work in recent years, becoming a master composter directing Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn. One Saturday in April 2018, he set himself on fire in Prospect Park, in protest against the inaction of so many to protect the environment, according to his suicide letter.
Climate-related despair isn’t in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – that is, it isn’t a diagnosable condition – but it does have a name used by many researchers worldwide: eco-anxiety, which the American Psychological Association describes as “the chronic fear of environmental doom.”
Eco-anxiety, unfortunately, is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon, and a burgeoning field within mental health. Fifty-six percent of 16-to-25-year-olds believe “humanity is doomed,” a 2021 survey of 10,000 youth in The Lancet found. Adults are similarly freaked out: Over half admitted to being “somewhat” or “extremely anxious” about the impact of climate change on their own mental health, in a 2020 poll by the American Psychiatric Association. Google searches for “eco-anxiety” increased 565% in the year ending May 2021, according to Grist, (a graph steep enough to be termed “unusual” by Google News Lab’s data director). Companies from Google to VMWare are hiring consultants to help their employees handle environmental distress. The New Yorker just ran a humor column, “Should You Have a Baby During the Global Apocalypse,” the maudlin tone adding emphasis. The topic is so ubiquitous that even Big Little Lies centered an episode around it.
Fears of nuclear meltdowns and disappearing species are hardly new; Rachel Carson wrote about these issues in 1962. “The difference now is that the scale is completely different,” says climate psychologist Renee Lertzmann. This truth is everywhere: Catastrophic fires like the one that just burned 500 homes in Boulder, CO, (in ski season, no less) and storms so fierce they rendered Lake Tahoe residents powerless and freezing under 212 inches of new snow, are now ubiquitous. The sixth mass extinction is underway, scientists overwhelmingly concur, with species disappearing at a faster rate than in the previous five. Intense drought and flooding is destroying resources, which can only produce more displacement, conflict and war. Add in the decimation of coral reefs and rainforests — “the lungs of the planet,” critical for producing the earth’s oxygen — and the virtually non-existent prospects for keeping warming below 1.5C, and we have entered unprecedented and scary territory.
Natural disasters linked to brain stress
Natural disasters from forest fires, droughts, pollution and heat waves, all increasing in intensity and frequency, are significant stressors on the brain, according to “The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States,” a 2012 report co-authored by Washington, D.C-based psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren for the National Wildlife Federation. It argued that pollution and warming temperatures are directly influencing neurological inflammation and regulation, contributing to a steep rise in depression, violence, PTSD, substance abuse and interpersonal distress.
The report estimated that 200 million Americans will be exposed to serious psychological distress from climate-related events and asserted a “causal relationship between heat and aggression” rooted in increased arousal and decreased self-regulation. Coastal and river flooding “are especially likely to lead to psychic injury from the stress of displacement” and losses of pets, possessions, housing and employment, the authors note. They examine the mental health toll of severe droughts, snowpack melts and superstorms like Hurricane Katrina, which “scattered residents of New Orleans all across the U.S…shattered a culture, broke up families, [and] spiked outbursts of outrage and blame.”
A decade after it was written, one conclusion seems especially prophetic. “The unrelenting day-by-day despair of watching and waiting for water that doesn’t come will have a singularly damaging impact on the psyche of the people who have depended on Mother Nature’s rainfall for their livelihood,” they wrote.
Suicide also rises in tandem with temperatures, reports a 2018 study in Nature Climate Change, which predicted an additional 9,000 to 40,000 climate-linked suicides in the United States and Mexico by 2050. In India, more than 60,000 farmers have killed themselves over the last 30 years as a result of crop failures linked to climate change. Residents of Paradise, California, are plagued by panic attacks and nightmares three years after catastrophic wildfires leveled their town. One in six people who’d been in New Orleans when Katrina struck still struggled with post-traumatic stress syndrome 12 years later.
A whole therapeutic field is emerging
Support groups and therapy networks to aid with eco-anxiety are cropping up all over. The Good Grief Network’s “10 Steps to Personal Resilience and Empowerment in a Chaotic Climate” lets people “collectively metabolize their heavy feelings.” Storytelling project Dear Tomorrow encourages cross-generational letter-writing to release feelings and anger; Call Your Mother provides a platform to record videos about climate fear. New parenting support groups teach wisdom like “the rule of three…For each negative [climate-related fact], give two positive stories,” says Patrick Kennedy-Williams, co-director of the English group Climate Psychologists and co-author of “Turn The Tide on Climate Anxiety.“
Kennedy-Williams also helps parents build their own resilience so they can help their kids, and he offers online sessions on handling insincere corporate sustainability efforts – aka greenwashing – and grappling with reproductive decisions based on climate fears. Bob Berley, a Seattle psychologist in private practice, offers a course for mental health practitioners on incorporating climate anxiety into their therapeutic frameworks.
In 2018, Manhattan-based psychotherapist Wendy Greenspun started hearing increased distress, sadness, and grief over climate change from patients of all ages. Then a Columbia University professor friend told her about a student’s end-of-class comment —“See you next week, if we’re still here” — and it pushed Greenspun to act. In partnership with Columbia, she began offering workshops to environmental science majors to explore their climate-related angst.
She listed herself in the Climate Psychology Alliance North America’s 2021 directory of “climate-aware therapists” that includes more than 100 practitioners. People started finding Greenspun in the directory and reaching out, motivating her to offer “climate cafes” – gatherings of eight to ten people anxious about climate change. The cafes “are not focused on an action plan. It’s not a gathering of activists,” Greenspun explains. She typically starts sessions with a prompt like sharing a piece of driftwood, and asks attendees what this bit of nature means to them. She hopes the groups can help normalize difficult feelings and provide a community for support.
Grass-roots activism, sometimes based in grief, is also growing. Sami Aaron, whose environmentalist son Kevin took his own life, began a Kansas City nonprofit called The Resilient Activist to help climate advocates manage their grief and anxiety. “We need activists who have the resilience to see us through these difficult times,” she told reporters with NPR-affiliate KCUR. “That’s what I wanted to give (and) what would have helped (Kevin) and others like him.”
Professionals addressing eco-anxiety want to sound the alarm on a growing mental health concern – but without pathologizing climate anxiety. Stress is “a logical, healthy psychological response,” says Carolyn Hickman, a teaching fellow in social and policy sciences at the University of Bath who co-authored the Lancet youth survey.
Bryan Karazsia, a professor of psychology at The College of Wooster, is helping develop the first Climate Change Anxiety Scale to measure the condition. He asserts that too little study has been done to make a classification determination. His take: eco-anxiety is not a disorder, but is a “clinically relevant construct” linked to functional impairment, intensifying problems like inability to sleep, concentrate or even have fun.
There is no move afoot to add eco-anxiety to the DSM-5, and practitioners disagree whether that would be sensible. Greenspun argues that a clinical designation is unwarranted because stress may be “a helpful response to what’s going on” that can help people channel their grief and sense of alarm into action. Kennedy-Williams of Climate Psychologists is more ambivalent: “I’m not saying pathologize, but if this was classified (in the DSM), that would bring more funding and access to support.”
“Any framework that attempts to remove the anxiety is wrong,” adds Kritee, (she goes by one name), a senior scientist working on climate agriculture issues for the Environmental Defense Fund in Colorado. She trained as a Zen Buddhist priest and now runs climate grief retreats through her nonprofit Boundless in Motion.
Whether or not the condition enters the DSM, clinical researchers are grappling with the ways eco-anxiety differs from General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). “Is this just anxiety manifesting in a different way or is this a new construct?” muses Wooster psychology professor Karazsia. In typical GAD, many things can trigger a person’s stress and the focus changes, he explains; with eco-anxiety, the focus is singular. But angst is not the only reaction climate change elicits.
“Climate anxiety’ is kind of a misnomer,” says Kennedy-Williams. “It’s also rage, guilt, paralysis. I prefer eco-emotions.” Regardless of the classification, Van Susteren is pressing the APA for specialized training for practitioners. “We need a subspecialty in climate and mental health,” she insists. “We need specialists that understand denial and intellectualization, resilience and community organizing.”
Youth feel betrayed by adults
Not surprisingly, young people are more susceptible to climate-related distress. They feel afraid, guilty and angry at higher rates than adults over age 50, a 2020 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found, and betrayed by the grown-ups who are supposed to protect them. “Kids feel as if it’s being done to them,” says University of Bath’s Hickman. “They have a strong BS meter. When they see the suits inside [the Convention on Climate Change] congratulating themselves while kids on the street are crying outside, that is messing our kids up.”
A group of 21 youth were so disturbed by climate inaction they filed a lawsuit against the US government, Juliana vs. United States, and Van Susteren was appointed to assess their psychological health. Her report found chronic and acute mental health impacts from “anticipatory anxiety from their knowledge of future harm” and “intense feelings of powerlessness.” These young people “live daily with the images of climate disasters they can’t get out of their minds. They struggle with ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder,’ a version of the classic PTSD that impedes their ability to experience joy, to think of anything but the doom that lies ahead,” she writes.
The starkest example of youth disillusion is their hesitancy around having children. This is not just the extremists: four of 10 youth in the Lancet survey, which spanned 10 countries, are contemplating not having children due to climate change. “When we first started, this conversation was super fringy,” says sociologist Meghan Kallman, the cofounder of Conceivable Future. “No longer.” In September, when The Atlantic profiled Kallman and her co-lead Josephine Ferorelli, the magazine posted this quote from Ferorelli on Instagram: “There’s a generation of people who are looking at the world around us and saying, ‘Oh shit, it might not be safe for me to have a child.’” Thirty thousand likes were quickly tapped.
Conceivable Future organizes living room salons to “talk about feelings and turn them into meaningful collective action instead of sending people home to turn down the thermostat and buy a Tesla,” says Ferorelli.
Psychologists recommend multiple strategies to manage this existential fear. Identifying triggers is one practical tactic. “Are they doomscrolling? Is reading the newspaper causing panic?” asks Kennedy-Williams. He warns against heeding narratives of perfectionism. “If you have to buy a [plastic] bottle of water at the airport, that causes a crisis” for some people, he says. He recommends self-care and spending time in nature and away from “triggering” media.
Therapists need to take a balanced approach with clients grappling with eco-anxiety, Hickman says, by validating their distress rather than diminishing it so they don’t get the message that they’re paranoid and shouldn’t worry so much. “Minimizing, rationalizing, or shutting the feelings down” is counter-productive, she says. It’s also important to acknowledge reality: “Letting go of the old hope that everything can be saved – that has to be surrendered. We must feel the weight of the loss and that sorrow, and let that grief be transformative,” she says, with barely a breath between phrases.
One sentiment is almost universal among this emerging group of therapists and scientists that are working to combat both climate destruction and debilitating grief: Turn anger into activism. “If you are a teacher, start a green club or write curriculum, or if you are an artist, use your medium to communicate,” says Leslie Davenport, a psychotherapist who teaches climate psychology. “Find your place in this larger movement. And be sure to do it with other people.”
Kritee expresses that idea differently: She calls for “composting the grief to fuel our movement” and authored an article titled “Climate despair vs. action: A false choice?” She adds: “I cannot emphasize enough the power of collective facing of grief and anger.”
She focuses much of her work on helping communities of color that are disproportionately affected by environmental stress because she sees climate anxiety adding to the race- and class-based trauma they already face. “We already don’t have enough mental healthcare,” she says. “What is coming our way, it’s going to be completely inadequate.”
Van Susteren is equally alarmed. “We no longer have the luxury to stay in our offices. We need to work together to build resilience in a community, to take action, not just look at symptoms,” she said. “We got a tsunami coming.”