Even Climate Scientists Are Getting Depressed by Our Lack of Progress

Anxiety about the changing environment isn’t just affecting you and professionals are working to understand it

worried in field
Arman Zhenikeyev/Corbis

It may sound like a ridiculous complaint, but environmental scientist Nicole Thornton experienced distress caused by climate change firsthand.

She told The Sydney Morning Herald that, around the time of the 2009 United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen, she would just start crying when discussing environmental issues. She had felt so personally invested in the conference's outcome that, when it ended without accomplishing much of anything, “It broke me...The trigger point was actually watching grown men cry. They were senior diplomats from small islands, begging larger countries to take action so that their nations would not drown with the rising seas.” 

The whole experience was odd and frustrating, she says.

But when you consider the connection we have with our environment, the studies showing the importance of green space and the struggles of people coping with natural disasters, the idea of being distressed by environmental change—whether you call it eco-anxiety, climate depression, apocalypse fatigue and solastalgia— starts to seem far from silly. Madeleine Thomas writes at Grist:

From depression to substance abuse to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, growing bodies of research in the relatively new field of psychology of global warming suggest that climate change will take a pretty heavy toll on the human psyche as storms become more destructive and droughts more prolonged. For your everyday environmentalist, the emotional stress suffered by a rapidly changing Earth can result in some pretty substantial anxieties.

(Especially when the best hope that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report can give us is "we need to act immediately" — a daunting prospect when there are politicians refusing to acknowledge that climate change is happening.)

Experts are now recognizing these experiences and starting to create strategies to address them. "Living in a stable, predictable environment is obviously an important contributor to people’s mental health and well-being, and that has often had been underestimated," writes Susie Burke, an Australian psychologist whose work shows that loss of biodiversity and other effects of climate change strike blows against human happiness.

The American Psychological Association also released a report in June about the psychological impacts of climate change. "Well-being is more than just the absence of injury or disease; it is also about human flourishing and resilience," the report says.

Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist, has offered some tips on how to care for yourself when feeling climate change burn out. They include practical advice for anytime—exercise, spend time outside, eat healthy. Her tips also have some specific points for dealing with climate change anxiety: Recognize that your fears are realistic, but don’t give up. And "connect with your fellow climate warriors to laugh and play games." Just maybe keep the conversation clear from climate to keep the laughs coming.

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