March 4, 2024

“It sucks…and it’s only going to get worse,” says my client, disbelief coloring their facial expression.

I tend to agree, it sucks.

I can feel my hands starting to get clammy as my memory flashes back to the catastrophic climate events I have recently seen unfold.

Witnessing the climate crisis can sometimes feel surreal, but I don’t mention that to my client. I have a job to do, and it’s not to escalate their rational anxieties and fears, it’s to manage what’s manageable; to learn coping strategies, to encourage connection with nature and social relationships, to channel their grief into sustainable action that feels meaningful.

I now work with adolescents and young adults, and this summer I saw another alarming upsurge in feelings of anger and despair about the climate. The source of their distress is not a personal trauma or a fleeting setback; it is an existential threat that looms larger every day.

I work within an ecopsychological framework, in which people’s psychological interdependence with the rest of nature is a focus, together with the implications for identity, health and well-being. What these young people deeply understand is that humans are not separate from nature – we are nature.

Watching the floods and fires unfold across several states has only deepened the anxiety as we understand that this is not just a temporary condition, but a stark preview of the grim reality that will be upon us for decades to come. wait.

As a psychologist, it is my duty to pay attention to the emotional toll this reality takes on my clients, but it becomes increasingly difficult to offer comfort when they are faced with a worse crisis.

The belief that things will not get better for many decades weighs heavily on the shoulders of young people who inherit a world that is completely different from their parents and elders.

What bothers me most is the deep sense of climate anxiety and sadness that has settled in the hearts and minds of the young people I work with because of the feeling that the political class and other adults around them are letting them down. This can lead to sleepless nights, racing thoughts, rumination and an inability to concentrate or focus.

The concept of intergenerational theft and betrayal is a prevailing sentiment among the young people I support.

The anger they feel is not only about the current disasters, but about the future they are bequeathed – a world where the stability of life is threatened. Where safety and stability are only available to a fraction of the world’s inhabitants.

So what can people do when they are overwhelmed by climate change?

I keep coming back to the message that there is so much beauty and life in the world that can be saved – and is absolutely worth fighting for. I encourage people to curate their social media feeds and look for good news stories about climate action around the world. I let them imagine a world that is just; where everyone has enough resources to meet their needs. I ask them what they can do now to contribute to this world, and ask them to move here.

I talk to them about connecting with like-minded peers, and joining a local climate action group. I talk to them about nature-based therapies – walking, swimming, listening and watching wildlife, attending beach clean-ups and tree-planting days. I talk to them about choosing financial institutions to bank with that exclude funding fossil fuel projects. I encourage awareness, enjoy the present moment, work through their grief through art, and work through their stress, anger and anxiety with movement.

The research tells us that climate change will cause and exacerbate mental illness, with young people and those from marginalized backgrounds disproportionately affected over their lifetimes.

Life as we know it is becoming more unstable by the day. The climate crisis is not an isolated problem; it intertwines with every facet of human existence, from food security and water availability to economic stability and spiritual well-being.

As a psychologist, I grapple with the challenge of preparing youth for a future that holds unprecedented challenges, a future shaped by a climate that continues to degrade.

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