The Current

Experiencing 'eco-anxiety'? Report suggests link between climate change and mental health

A new report by the American Psychological Association suggests worrying about climate change is having a serious impact on our mental health.
An emaciated sheep stands in a field near Port Augusta, Australia. Just one example of how negative impacts of climate change is causing a strain on our mental health. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Read story transcript

Liz Galst lives with anxiety, and she hates it — hates the way it can dominate her life, and especially what triggers it.

For the editorial consultant in New York City, it's not her personal or professional life that stresses her out. It's not worrying about her children's health, or her parents, or her own.

Galst worries about climate change.

"I'm anxious all the time.  I don't have a way to stop being anxious," she tells The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"Nobody around seems to be anxious about [climate change]. In fact, nobody around seems to be concerned at all about it."

Galst worries in bed late into the night, obsessing about everything.

She takes the stairs to save "every last bit of electricity" and hands out cards to idling motorists explaining the benefits of turning their engines off. She even hassles her friends about switching to renewable energy sources. 
A farmer walks on a dried-up pond on the outskirts of Baokang, central China's Hubei province, 2007. R (Stringer/Reuters)

But nothing she does relieves her anxiety.

"I keep telling myself to try and calm down, and at the same time I keep telling myself there must be something more that I can do."

Galst has since sought professional help, and is finally getting her anxiety under control.

But she's not alone in feeling the mental stress of climate change.

"Eco-anxiety" has become a short-hand description for symptoms that psychologists are starting to see from Nunavut to Australia and beyond.

That feeling of distress is detailed in a new report by the American Psychological Association that suggests worrying about climate change is having a serious impact on our mental health, and it's something they say we need to pay a lot more attention to.

"We know that when the environment changes rapidly and when there are these very strong events that people have very strong mental health responses," Ashlee Cunsolo tells Chattopadhyay.

Cunsolo is the director of the Labrador Institute at Memorial University, and contributed to the report. She points to Hurricane Katrina as one extreme climate-related disaster that severely impacted people's mental health.

Related: We need to talk about "eco-anxiety"

But it's not just single events. Cunsolo says longer-term climate changes are also having an impact.

"Whether it's in the Canadian north, or in Australia or in other regions of the world, we're starting to work with people and talk to them about their lived experiences and what they're seeing," she explains. 
According to a report released by the European Copernicus Climate Change Service, 2016 is likely to have been the hottest year since global temperatures were recorded in the 19th century. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

"[Scientists] match that with some of the meteorological data [tracking] the changes in sea ice, the changes in weather patterns to paint a much broader picture of how climate change is actually impacting people's lived experiences and their mental health."

Kim Keenan is a clinical social worker who refers to herself as an eco-therapist. She says she's seen a steady increase in people looking for help with their concerns about climate change.

"They're starting to think of their future in a way. What can I do to impact that future. And if I can't do something on my little micro level then my my sense of hopelessness just goes up."

Cunsolo says climate anxiety is the downside to people's increased awareness and concern about global issues.

"We're living in a time where there's this huge global narrative about climate change. It's called the doom and gloom narrative," she says.

"And so I think that over time, that alone is affecting so many of us. It's affecting our outlook, it's affecting our hopes for the future."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith, Ines Colabrese and Ashley Mak.