Got Climate Anxiety? These People Are Doing Something About It

Distress over global warming is increasing, but formal and informal support networks are springing up, too. Jennifer Atkinson, an associate professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell, became depressed after students told her they couldn’t sleep because they feared social collapse or mass extinction. Over the past five years, according to researchers at Yale University and George Mason University, the number of Americans who are “very worried” about climate change has more than doubled, to 26 percent. In 2020, an American Psychiatric Association poll found that more than half of Americans are concerned about climate change’s effect on their mental health.

Eco-distress can manifest in a range of ways, from anguish over what the future will hold to extreme guilt over individual purchases and behaviors, according to Dr. Van Susteren. Though its symptoms sometimes mirror those of clinical anxiety, she said she saw eco-distress as a reasonable reaction to scientific facts — one that, in mild cases, should be addressed but not pathologized. (In cases of extreme anxiety, Dr. Van Susteren said it was important to seek professional help.)

Sherrie Bedonie, a social worker and co-founder of the Native American Counseling and Healing Collective, a group practice owned by four Native American women, shared that view. While her clients don’t use terms like eco-anxiety, Ms. Bedonie said Native people were “always grieving” the loss of their land and culture and encourages her clients to face their feelings. “If people aren’t ready or they run from grief, it’ll continue to haunt them,” she said.

As for non-Native people, Ms. Bedonie said she hoped part of their grieving process would be acknowledging past and present traumas inflicted upon Indigenous communities. Then, she said, we’ll be able to “come together” and “start the healing process of Mother Earth.”

And that’s what people dealing with climate grief generally underscore: that grief for the planet shouldn’t be buried. In fact, when processed communally, it might actually be a potent weapon.

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