Climate Change and Mental Health

"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. "

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)


While non-believers continue to contest climate change's reality, its life-threatening consequences are being felt by many across the world, particularly the most affected people and areas (MAPA). In consolation, climate awareness is increasing, as revealed by the UNDP's People's Climate Vote in 2020. showed that two-thirds of people around the world now accept that climate change is a global emergency. This could be attributed to the issue of climate change, becoming more and more visible every day.

Climate disasters are rising, with wildfires in Australia and the U.S., oil spills in the Arctic, and multiple floods and abnormal weather patterns in the Indian subcontinent. Even so, some of the most significant contributors to climate change are yet to bat an eyelid. Despite being an emergency, many governments have not initiated sufficient climate action management in their policies. This is a conundrum for the average citizen, who has limited access to information, finances, and public resources to mitigate environmental deterioration. When the Earth as we know is changing for the worse, and those with the capacity to turn things around are doing virtually nothing, it is only natural for us to panic. After all, we're wired for survival.


Perhaps this is why psychotherapist and lecturer Caroline Hickman warns against suggesting that someone who experiences anxiety about the climate or eco-anxiety is "mentally unwell." On the contrary, she states that it is a healthy response to the world's current state, a recognition of a reality all of us have to face. At the same time, it becomes necessary to try and ensure that the eco-anxiety that people are suffering does not become so hard to bear that it significantly affects their well-being and capacity to function, which has been observed in cases of people experiencing massive depressive episodes, burnouts and guilt, to the point of people starving themselves in an attempt to avoid participating in the consumerist culture that exacerbates climate change. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) are yet to feature terms like eco-anxiety, ecological grief, solastalgia and psychoterratic illness, but professionals are already using these within the field of ecopsychology to understand climate related distress. Although the understanding of climate change is quite often associated with manifestations in the natural world and issues related to human lives are seldom discussed, a quick data check reveals some startling statistics.


According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020 released by Germanwatch, extreme weather events caused 2081 deaths in India in 2018. In 2020, India suffered two out of 10of the most costly climate disasters, Cyclone Amphan and multiple floods due to abnormally heavy monsoon rains. The Greenpeace Southeast Asia Report states that in 2020, air pollution claimed 54,000 lives. Climate change affects health's social and physical determinants, contributing to various physical health problems ranging from acute conditions like physical trauma in disaster zones and heart disease to more gradual health effects. There is a range of mental health conditions that can be aggravated as a result of climate change, such as depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Like all human rights issues, climate change also produces certain at-risk populations based on differences in geographical location, race, gender, sexual orientation, caste and capital. For example, queer youth, particularly trans and gender-nonconforming youth of colour, are more likely to be homeless. They are at the frontlines of the dangers of climate change and its associated adversity. These individuals become victims of environmental injustice, because they take on the environmental burden of a privileged few. This raises the importance of discussing intersectionality when organizing efforts for climate action.

Therefore, climate change is probably the most intersectional challenge of our time, and each individual deserves an equal right and responsibility to the environment.


Intersectionality is highly significant when organizing climate action efforts. Those that are guilty of harming nature must have to explain themselves. Minority communities must be recognized for the environmental injustice that they face at the hands of corporations and world leaders who do not advocate for fair and sustainable natural resources usage. At a global level, this discussion has also extended to arguments that illustrate that the Global North has a moral duty to drastically cut its excess consumption to allow countries of the Global South to be able to rely on natural resources necessary to attain a basic standard of living, drawing on the consequences of post-colonization on the environment. When injustices along these different dimensions are carried out, with no attempts to make rectifications, it further adds to the state of eco-anxiety that one might experience.


Eco-conscious people who may be more privileged also tend to experience a form of survivor's guilt, being aware that a capitalistic society, a major contributor towards climate destruction, thrives by profiting off those who are less privileged.


The global youth movement against climate change is evidence that a majority of the population that reflects the concerns of the issue are young people, including a significant number of children. According to Maria Ojala, a Psychology professor at Örebo University who has contributed immensely to the literature on the coping styles of young people to climate change, eco-anxiety is a result of the gap between concern and engagement the youth experience because of living lives that they know to be unsustainable, and insufficient empowerment and agency to affect change. It does not help when adults dismiss their distress. 17-year old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist and leading figure of Friday's for Future (FFF), still faces criticism from many, particularly the older generation, who accuse her of ingenuity and make insensitive comments on her autism to delegitimize her statements.


Back home, Disha Ravi, a twenty two year old Indian climate activist and one of the founders of Fridays for Future India, was detained for several days after having been accused by the Delhi Police for allegedly being the "editor of a toolkit and key conspirator in the 26th January violence" with intentions to "wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India", acting in collaboration with the "pro-Khalistani" Poetic Justice Foundation. The toolkit in question, tweeted by Greta and retweeted by Disha, intended to educate readers about the farmers' protests in India and ways to support the cause, which is an important fight for climate justice. Prior to Disha's arrest, the Delhi Police had filed an FIR against Greta for having shared the toolkit. Celebrities like Rihanna, Mia Khalifa, Meena Harris and Amanda Cerny faced severe backlash, including having their posters burnt for showing support to the farmers' protests.


The risk of being branded anti-national and being subject to violence for talking about the environment further increases the eco-anxiety that one experiences. News of Disha's arrest produced both solidarity and hate, including an online smear campaign with a communal spin, projecting her as Disha Ravi Jacob, a Christian from Kerala. Two other climate activists, Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk were also arrested under what is being called the 'Toolkit Case'. Nodeep Kaur, a twenty four year old Indian Dalit labour rights activist and member of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (MAS) supporting the farmers' protest, was arrested for a number of alleged charges by the Haryana police and subject to physical and sexual abuse while in custody. These attacks are evidently misogynistic and casteist in nature, fuelled by agitation against women and Dalit people raising their voices. In 2020, protests against the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification was also met with resistance when three prominent environmental websites, Let India Breathe (LIB), Fridays for Future, and There is No Planet B were temporarily blocked. Such responses to climate action-oriented efforts highlight the friction that exists against creating awareness in the country, with free speech becoming increasingly dangerous by the day.


Most climate activists identify themselves as having experienced eco-anxiety, which both fuels their work and sometimes also results in further distress. Sometimes, it becomes difficult to communicate the distress of eco-anxiety with people in their lives who may not be as closely involved in climate issues. To tackle this concern, Fridays for Future hosts a Climate Cafe every Sunday, where members get together and discuss their anxiety. This spirit of togetherness among activist communities appears to be a significant moderator of eco-anxiety.


X, a social worker, says that while eco-anxiety drives a large amount of their work, the support of other activist friends as well as sharing their apprehensions with one another has helped them reduce activist burnout. Empathy and concern for those less privileged is also another motivating factor. Y explains that although they feel intense emotions of anxiety and depression, they keep moving forward because their work is not for themselves but for those who will be worse affected. This makes them determined to raise their voice against climate injustice. Sometimes, even taking a break can help subside severe stress associated with eco-anxiety. Z takes one or two days off to rejuvenate in the presence of nature, by watching BBC documentaries or by travelling. This enables them to approach their work again with enthusiasm. Other climate activists have also stated that taking breaks to minimize their interactions with climate movements and avoid reading climate-related news, helps calm them down. Instead, they spend some time with friends outside activist circles or read material that is not climate related.


Although such individual measures are necessary and beneficial, they do not address the systemic issue. One of the most observable reasons to address climate change from a public health approach is the COVID-19 pandemic. Epidemiologists have made it clear that with further environmental degradation, more pandemics will occur due to disruptions in the natural ecosystem. This highlights the need for country leaders to declare climate change as an emergency so that interventions can be planned accordingly. Having witnessed world leaders' ability to enact rapid response protocols for the pandemic has made many activists anticipate that such responses can be an option for organizing climate action. Of course, this step can only be taken once policymakers recognize the urgency of climate change.


The private sector also has a substantial role to play in coordinating efforts for climate action. According to the Carbon Majors Report, only 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. The U.N. Global Compact's "Health is Everyone's Business" action platform elucidates how the challenges faced by people and the planet are interlinked. It emphasizes the importance of investigating health as an indicator of environmental progress and emphasizes the private sector's role in

addressing these challenges. With regard to health care professionals, advocating for health equity, making climate conscious purchases, planning for climate related health interventions, and building resilience in the client population are powerful ways to take climate action in healthcare. Naomi Beyeler, who leads the Global Health Group's climate and health initiative, describes what she calls the health action for climate approach, which illuminates the role the healthcare sector can play in reducing the carbon footprint. On the other hand, there is also the climate action for health approach that encourages health scientists and caregivers to take up climate messengers' role because healthcare has a real stake in being engaged in climate policy. Approaching climate change as a public health concern with the government's coordination, academia, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations could create an effective health response that would address the eco-anxiety people experience.


Organizing a public health response to climate change should form a crucial part of climate action even in India, despite the growing unreliability of those who occupy positions of power. Bush et al., (2011) list a number of strategies that can be used as public health responses to climate change in India. Improving environmental monitoring and surveillance systems to collect data on climate related health outcomes to understand current climate-health associations and to predict future developments would provide a picture of what public health infrastructure already exists and what more may be needed to provide effective interventions. Mohit Sain of Down To Earth writes about the need for climate finance, calling on the government to engage with sector experts and increase the participation of leading organizations to leverage finance from global development institutions and philanthropic investors. These efforts can aid the government in achieving several of its climate targets like cutting down on carbon emissions and projects like making housing more climate resilient and constructing rehabilitation centres for climate refugees. Geospatial technology can be used to conduct vulnerability assessments, assess environmental exposures and convey information to policymakers and the public. Enhancing human and technical capacity through public education and creating region and city specific climate action plans would serve to raise public preparedness. A sufficient climate action response would, in essence, mandate a collaboration of experts from various fields and across different verticals, from the local to the global. The courage of the farmers, the climate activists and others who are protesting for many of our basic rights is a beacon of hope and a reminder that we have a voice. Keeping this in mind, we must ensure that our demands for climate action are made known.


Anna Maria is a writer and she is interested in mental health awareness, queer rights and the climate crisis.



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