Taking care of your mental health in a climate crisis

Illustration by Alieha Dryden | The Arbiter

As the effects of climate change become more prevalent, younger generations might feel the tangible effects of global warming more than any other generation. As it turns out, more than half are already facing mental health struggles. 

In a 2021 survey conducted by the University of Bath, 10,000 individuals from ages 16 to 25 were asked to describe their feelings about the future in relation to climate change. 

What was uncovered was frightening for the mental health of young people.

Over 50% of young adults reported feeling anxious, sad, powerless and guilty, while over 45% claimed that their fears of climate change impact their daily lives. What was least reported: optimism. 

The term “climate anxiety” or eco-anxiety has come to light as the effects of global warming have continued to affect the health of predominantly younger generations, including Generation Z. 

Climate anxiety is rooted in the uncertainty of the planet’s future and lack of control. This anxiety is often accompanied by guilt and shame, commonly leading to behavior, mood and cognitive difficulties. 

Sarah Jaquette Ray, a professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University, discusses the importance of addressing the guilt that comes with environmental damage when coping with climate anxiety in her 2020 publication, “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet.”

“People are profoundly disturbed by climate change, and being told that it is the fault of our own moral failings is not only demoralizing but factually wrong,” Ray wrote in her field guide. “It does not help muster the stamina to stay involved in environmental work for the long haul. Instead, it can lead to various forms of self reassurance, or cause people to give up despair, choosing short term avoidance and apathy over long term climate justice.”

The “existentialist toolkit,” as quoted in the book, is available through the Boise State Library as well as other local book stores such as Rediscovered Books. 

In understanding that the future of climate change does not solely rest on their shoulders, students must also allow themselves the opportunity to seek support. 

[Illustration of yoga “Dancer Pose.”]
Illustration by Alieha Dryden | The Arbiter

Saleh Ahmed, a Boise State University environmental studies professor, addresses  climate anxiety in his courses.

“I talk about environmental concerns and anxiety in my class. I also highlight what can be done, and how we can contribute to that process,” Ahmed said. “My class is designed to find solutions, not just to share challenges.”

In response to how students can maintain stamina while dealing with pessimistic ideals, he maintained the following:

“It’s about the approach. How are you approaching your and society’s future? Pessimistic ideals cannot give us anything extra to our life or overall life experiences. As an educator, I usually highlight the bright side of life and individual and collective capacity to achieve something better. I see optimism, passion, and excitement among students. If we can use those in the right direction, I see they can be instrumental in achieving sustainability in the short and long term.” 

To help maintain the health of young people, they must change their mindset to be solution oriented rather than defeatist, while also giving themselves the opportunity to feel mental peace.

“Knowing we are part of the collective gives us permission to rest,” Ray wrote. “We all must take care of ourselves so that we can step up when others need to tend to themselves. The perception that social change happens only on an individual scale creates defeatism.”

Most importantly, maintaining quality mental health has a lot to do with a quality community. 

“I think social bonding is critical. It is important to think not only about ourselves but also about the people around us. If they [students] are connected socially, they would find themselves mentally healthy,” Ahmed said.

Once students are able to feel mentally at ease, using that worry to engage in political change and action, big or small, can shift the tone of climate anxiety. 

“By politicizing your angst, you can focus your energies on collective resilience and adaptation,” Ray said. “Making these stories true will require you to nourish, not deny your body and soul. Or to put it another way, reframing environmentalism as a movement of abundance, connection, or well being can help us rethink it as a politics of desire rather than politics of individual sacrifice and consumer denial.”

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