In recent years, mental health professionals have observed a trend: an increasing number of individuals are expressing concerns related to climate change in therapy sessions. This phenomenon, often referred to as “climate anxiety”, is not a singular experience, nor is it always anxiety in the traditional sense. Rather, it encompasses a spectrum of emotions, including trauma, anger, and grief, and manifests itself in various ways, ranging from acute anxiety to chronic stress and depression.

A 2021 study in The Lancet Planetary Health found 45 per cent of children in 10 different countries say climate change affects their life every day. The trend has carried over to adults and given rise to a new field in mental health. Psychiatrist Dr Lise Van Susteren, for example, helped to found the Climate Psychiatry Alliance in Washington in 2016 to deal with this new phenomenon. She says that climate change is not just an environmental issue but also a profound threat to mental health. She believes that the bombardment of images of climate degradation and the accompanying uncertainty about the future contribute to heightened psychological distress among individuals.

Experts emphasise that individuals are influenced by their unique circumstances and coping mechanisms, and that climate anxiety can also exacerbate existing mental health conditions. Some sufferers may express grief for the loss of natural habitats, while others may feel overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness in the face of environmental destruction. Another common emotion is anger, particularly towards governments, corporations, and other entities perceived as responsible for environmental degradation. This sense of injustice and moral outrage can contribute to heightened stress levels and interpersonal conflict, further impacting mental well-being.

Lowest on the totem pole hardest hit by climate

Climate change-induced environmental degradation is increasingly contributing to population displacement and forced migration. Coastal communities in Bangladesh, for example, frequently face natural disasters and environmental degradation. In 2007 Cyclone Sidr displaced millions of people in the Sundarbans region and led to widespread psychological distress among affected communities. Small developing island states in the Pacific, such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands, are also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and these environmental stressors have led to feelings of existential dread among communities, who face displacement and the potential loss of their culture.

Indigenous communities around the world often inhabit regions that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as coastal areas, Arctic regions, and tropical forests. These communities rely heavily on the land and natural resources for their livelihoods, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs. However, they face significant challenges due to environmental degradation, resource depletion, and climate-related disasters. For example, indigenous peoples in the Arctic are experiencing rapid changes in their traditional way of life due to melting ice caps, thawing permafrost, and disrupted wildlife migration patterns. These changes not only threaten their physical well-being and food security but also undermine their cultural identity and sense of belonging.

Another group disproportionately affected by climate change is farmers and agricultural workers, especially those in developing countries. Climate variability, including erratic rainfall patterns, prolonged droughts, and extreme weather events, can result in crop failure and threaten their livelihoods. This not only impacts their physical health but contributes to mental health issues. The uncertainty surrounding future agricultural productivity and income exacerbates these psychological challenges, particularly for small-scale farmers who lack access to financial resources and social support networks.

Green grief: Learning to cope with the loss of our lands

A burgeoning lexicon is emerging to better articulate the impacts of climate change on mental well-being. The term “solastalgia”, which combines the Latin word solacium, meaning comfort, and the Greek root algia, meaning pain, was coined to convey the unease people experience when contemplating an unpredictable future and a disruption of their traditional way of life by environmental shifts. “Eco-anxiety” describes a normal response to the climate crisis and does not typically escalate to clinical concern, but it can lead to “ecological grief”, particularly among young people. Activists and climate scientists are especially susceptible to emotional exhaustion and despondency as efforts towards sustainability encounter setbacks.

The integration of mental health care into climate action will be important to foster resilient healthy communities. Mental health practitioners are increasingly emphasising the significance of incorporating climate-related concerns into therapeutic interventions to develop coping strategies. Education about climate change and its impact on mental health can also empower individuals to take proactive steps towards self-care and advocacy. In remote regions where access to psychiatrists and mental health care professionals is limited, online counselling services (teletherapy) or community-based support groups may offer alternative avenues for individuals to seek help and cope with climate-related mental health challenges. Engagement with nature, where possible, can also have therapeutic effects. Activities like gardening, forest walks, or participating in environmental conservation efforts can provide emotional relief and a sense of agency.

Dr Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow and the Director of International Security & Terrorism Program at TRENDS Research & Advisory (Dubai)

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