If I asked you to visualise the impacts of climate change, what would come to mind? Perhaps a city submerged in water? Or a forest ablaze as the sky burns blood orange? Or perhaps something more cliché like a lone polar bear floating out to sea on a small iceberg? Many young people are well versed on the impacts of climate change. We know it is causing rising sea levels, forest fires, and habitat destruction, but what about its impact on our minds?
The American Psychology Association has linked climate change to increased rates of stress, depression, anxiety, aggression, violence, and crime; while also increasing rates of conflict-avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness, and resignation. What a fun list, right? I mean, call me crazy, but I don’t think that living with a never-ending fear of the world ending is conducive to wonderful mental health.
This hits young people especially hard, with a global psychological study from last year finding that over 84% of young people were moderately to extremely worried about climate change; over 45% were negatively impacted in their daily functioning because of their feelings towards climate change; and over 75% were frightened by the future.
My personal struggle with eco-anxiety has been pretty moderate, as I am well practiced at numbing myself to an adaptive degree. But sometimes all it takes is one depressing statistic for the entire facade to collapse, and then at least a month after that to piece it back together.
Yet, as I have joined climate activism spaces, new friends have shared their mental health struggles with me. This has given me unimaginable comfort—it is so important to know that we are not alone. So, below follows two interviews with these new friends, current and ex-UoA students, from Fridays for Future Tāmaki Makaurau, as they discuss mental health, coping, and hope.
Do you remember your first instance of eco-anxiety/climate-related emotional distress?
Hasini: Yes, very vividly. It was days and nights of crying and being incredibly depressed. It was after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered a landmark report and told the world the consequences of the climate crisis, which included many irreversible effects too. It completely changed my life and the path I would take from then on.
Sophie: Yes, my first instance of eco-anxiety was when I was around thirteen, where as part of a school project about plastics, my family kept every piece of plastic aside in our rubbish bin for a week. When I spread out all the types of plastic it covered the entire floor of our lounge and almost none of it was recyclable. And I just realised the scale of pollution that my family had to exist within. That was my first encounter with that existential dread.
In what ways has climate change impacted your mental health since then?
Hasini: Since reading that IPCC report I have often felt suicidal due to the lack of action we see from individuals, organisations, and governments, where everyone’s finger-pointing and refusing to own up and take action. Being aware of what’s happening with climate change hasn’t been easy, but I would much rather be aware than remain ignorant and help continue the path we are going down.
Sophie: When I was 21 I quit my job because I realised that I was so mentally unwell and I was just contributing to this machine. So, it literally disrupted my life entirely.
When you’re used to being under a certain level of stress it definitely makes you more reactive and responsive, so when I hear bad news I’m not surprised but it’s still really painful. I think the climate crisis has made me really anxious… I mean, it is eco-anxiety. But it also desensitises me as well. It’s like you have to numb yourself to be able to be under that constant stress.
What are some short-term ways to cope with climate anxiety?
Hasini: Talking about it with people definitely helps, as it unloads the burden from yourself a little bit. Also, taking my own personal action also helps, where I try to limit my impact on the planet as well. This makes me feel less powerless as I know that everyone doing the same things adds to a cumulative effect. I also just go for a bicycle ride along the waterfront, which helps me to calm down.
Sophie: I find that connecting with the environment helps. Like knowing that I am actually here for a reason, I am part of the ecosystem, I can contribute to the earth. And then taking a small action to be a part of that movement. If I sign a petition, pick up some litter, or plant something in my garden, I’m one of millions of people doing those small actions. It can help a lot to just go, “there is this doom machine, but I am going to be a small drop in this wave of change”.
What are some long-term ways to cope with climate anxiety?
Hasini: After reading the IPCC report, I threw myself into the climate movement in every way I could. I’ve joined every climate group I know, which helps me feel less alone—it’s nice to be with people who share the same views as you. I am also an advocate for behaviour change where you can, as it is what has helped me remain sane, knowing I am doing the right thing while also pushing for systemic change.
Sophie: As long as we keep engaging with corporations (because they are the only options that we have), we are only going to keep existing in the space of short-term solutions. A lot of the community actions that we talk about are short-term solutions and collectively they make up a long-term solution. But the real long-term solution is going to be in policy change and corporations being held to account.
I think probably the single biggest thing you can do as a long-term solution for the environment is educate yourself, vote, and figure out how elections and political parties actually work.
Why do you think it’s important that we talk about this issue?
Hasini: Because I feel like for the first time in human history, we don’t look at the future as a bright place. We don’t feel like our lives are going to get better. The latest IPCC report talks about the solutions, and they exist. It’s just a matter of global coordination and mobilisation—every decision and action from now on counts. We can make the future hopeful again.
Sophie: If we talk about it, if we acknowledge the anxiety is there, that gives us the starting point for something better to happen. I think anyone who has had a mental health battle will know about executive dysfunction, and I feel like as a society we are collectively battling with that. To overcome this we have to be grounded in hope. We have to let ourselves dream and engage with others who have a better dream for the world. We have to create our hope.