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Mental wellness needs to be part of our response to climate change. Here’s why

COP26 has come to an end. For two weeks, more than 30,000 delegates and state leaders from around the world convened in Glasgow to address climate change and move to a net-zero economy. The good news? Four Latin American countries launched an initiative to create a vast marine protected area, $1,7b in funding was pledged to indigenous communities in recognition of their key role in protecting the planet’s lands and forests, and the world was nudged a little closer towards the path to keep global heating below the 1.5 °C limit.

Whether COP26 was a spark of hope or fuel for a blazing fire depends on whom you ask. But what I believe we can agree on is that pledges and politics alone won’t save us from the perils of a heating planet. Transformative change starts with ourselves. It emerges from within, and flows through the space between us, inspiring others in our networks and communities to change, too. Karen O’Brien, Professor Sociology and Human Geography, writes in Quantum Social Change “healing our climate requires we heal and change individually and collectively.” Mental wellness must be a crucial component of our response to climate change. Here’s why.

Human flourishing and planetary health are interconnected. Artwork by Masawa’s Niels Devisscher © All rights reserved.

Mental wellness is about learning to cope and find active hope in difficult times

We talk a lot about resilience and adaptation to climate change — adapting our built environment in ways that make us more resistant to the impacts of a changing climate on our enveloping landscapes. But as importantly, it’s also about accustoming our minds to change and how we perceive, relate, and respond to it. As I’ve argued before, climate change will continue to have far-reaching consequences on our mental health as climate disasters are likely to become more frequent. Floods destroying our homes, droughts displacing us from our ancestral lands, and the loss of our human and nonhuman relatives cause severe mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering. We must make mental wellness a priority, so we are empowered to nurture it, and prepare ourselves, our communities, and our systems for the changes to come.

Mental wellness not only refers to an inner state of being that enables us to flourish and realize our unique potential. It’s also a continuous practice of learning to sit with thoughts and difficult feelings — becoming mindful of our inner worlds and how they shape, and are shaped by, our outer realities. It’s growing the resilience and inner capacities to navigate challenges in our everyday lives — capacities that are more important today than ever before, as millions are living with mental health challenges and more than half of today’s youth are experiencing eco-anxiety. This doesn’t mean becoming numb by suppressing those feelings.“To keep those feelings from tipping into paralysis,” Clover Hogan, climate activist and founder of Force for Nature, explains, “we need to connect those feelings to a real sense of agency. These feelings are what ring the internal alarm bells and tell us, ‘We need to do something about this.’”

A sense of agency is a crucial component of mental wellness and a prerequisite for climate action. Agency is acknowledging that our actions matter; that we matter. Agency starts in our imagination, which requires the courage to look beyond who and what we are today, as individuals and as a society, and the willingness to radically reimagine the future. As Alex Khasnabish and Max Haiven write:

“Radical imagination is the ability to imagine the world, life, and social institutions not as they are but as they might otherwise be. It is the courage and the intelligence to recognize that the world can and should be changed. The radical imagination is not just about dreaming of different futures. It’s about bringing those possibilities back from the future to work on the present, to inspire action and new forms of solidarity today.”

Mental wellness is the process of reconnecting with ourselves, each other, and the more-than-human world

What do depression, trauma, and the climate crisis have in common? They are all rooted in disconnection. When we experience depression, we may feel disconnected from our self or from the person we once were. We feel as though the threads that hold us together and bind us to the people around us have been cut. Relating and relations become difficult. A growing number of people today feel isolated and lonely, finding it hard to connect with peers and form and sustain friendships. 46% of Americans say they feel lonely regularly, and the number of close friends dropped from three in 1985 to two in 2011.

Trauma, too, dissociates us from our authentic selves, deeply affecting connections in and outside us. When a child experiences traumatic events or toxic stress as a result of abuse, neglect, or a lack of safety and love, their brain wants to protect them from experiencing the associated pain. This often results in chronic shutting down or suppressing feelings. Without healing, trauma, i.e. what happens inside us in response to adverse experiences, can make it difficult to form relationships later in life.

Environmental collapse also stems from centuries of disconnection. By creating and reinforcing imaginary boundaries, we separated ourselves from the rest of nature. As a result of this imagined separation, we have come to view nature’s gifts as infinite natural resources to be extracted and exploited, entirely in service to our species. In the early 1900s, Economist E. F. Schumacher already observed that “Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature, but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it.” This disconnection from nature — from life itself, further removes us from the aliveness of all beings, and ultimately, from our own aliveness. Decades of research show that we do not only depend on nature to sustain us materially (and that nature depends on us and our life-affirming behavior to sustain it) but that we also need to experience and connect to nature to be happy and well.

Depression, trauma, and the climate crisis all occur when we have been cut off from something we innately need. When our basic needs are left unfulfilled, or when our social and emotional wounds remain unhealed. To find solace for our unhappiness and loneliness, we tend to turn to consumerism and substances. We come to believe that we must have the latest technologies and products to be happy. We think that money will fill the void inside us. Work, short-term pleasures, and (other) drugs become coping mechanisms; ways to escape reality and uncomfortable feelings. I have been there. I know people close to me who have been there, or still are. It’s painful, but it also taught me that we are not alone in our pain. And that everyone longs for something deeper and more meaningful. Connection heals ourselves, others, and our planet. It’s the breeding ground for transformative change.

The path forward

To address the climate crisis, we need to prioritize mental wellness. To find inner healing, and to restore connections with self, others, and nature.

We need active hope and radical imagination — recognizing that we matter more than we often think; that the future can be different from today’s reality. Mental wellness is the ability to find strength in the face of climate change, and to be active agents in the unfolding change process toward a thriving world.

Niels Devisscher

Niels is Analyst & Content Strategist at Masawa. Having a background in both International Entrepreneurship and fine art photography and visual art, he continuously explores the intersection between art, social entrepreneurship, and future finance.

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Masawa is the world’s first mental wellness impact fund, committed to shifting the established paradigms of investment and mental health support. We invest in founders innovating mental wellness and work with them to maximize impact, organizational health, and financial returns.

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Masawa

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We are the mental wellness impact fund. We invest in companies innovating mental wellness and help them succeed through impact & organizational health support.

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