Climate Change’s Hidden Victim: Your Mental Health

A controversial new class argues that you can’t begin to address the environmental impacts of global warming until you address the psychological ones

Ciara O'Rourke
Jan 24 · 9 min read
Photo by Christopher Sardegna on Unsplash

In December 2017, Jennifer Atkinson flew from Washington to Santa Barbara, California, where her family lives, to celebrate Christmas. The 42-year-old is a senior lecturer in environmental humanities at the University of Washington Bothell, about an hour from Seattle, but she grew up in rural central California, outside the town of Templeton. She remembers cattle ranches and vineyards and fields of oak trees stretching toward the sun. She spent her summers playing in a creek with her dogs. Some nights, she’d sleep outside on lawn furniture and stare at the stars twinkling overhead.

On this trip, though, in the middle of winter, smoke darkened the skyline in Santa Barbara. By December 14, flames had scorched more than 242,000 acres in Southern California, making it the state’s fourth-largest wildfire to date and the only December-occurring wildfire on the list of California’s 20 largest wildfires, according to a post on what was then the government’s climate website.

During her visit, Atkinson watched her nieces and nephew hook masks over their ears before they could play outside after school. After pulling on dresses and nice shoes to attend a performance of the Nutcracker, they walked back to their cars wearing the masks to filter out the smoke. Atkinson had been getting evacuation alerts on her phone for nearby neighborhoods all evening, and the smoke had become so oppressive that she and her family decided to leave too. She was devastated by the destruction around them, the danger, the loss.

“The experience of being in or in the vicinity of a catastrophic wildfire is so pervasive,” Atkinson says today. “You can’t not see it. And to actually breathe in these toxins, to know they’re going into your lungs and your body, there’s just a sense of assault, or a kind of invasion, that is just deeply personal.”

It felt traumatic, but that doesn’t mean it was novel. Atkinson had been reckoning with those feelings when she pitched a new class to the university that was set to begin when she returned to work after the holiday. “Depressed about climate change?” read a flyer advertising the course. “Our seminar will examine not only the anxiety that is our own, but also the psychological toll of climate change on communities in different parts of the world.” She called the three-credit undergraduate class “Environmental Grief and Anxiety: Building Hope in the Age of Climate Consequences.” It was aimed in part at exploring the emotional and ethical issues of climate change, as well as helping students develop tools to endure the emotional effects of extinctions, deforestation, and more.

Atkinson created this seminar because “we can’t afford to educate a generation of young people who aren’t emotionally prepared for what’s coming, what’s already here.”

It was just a pilot. Atkinson didn’t know if students would be interested. But two dozen enrolled, and after the quarter started, the university ran a story about the class on its website. News coverage followed as the Seattle Times and other publications reported on this woman who was lecturing on coping with grief connected to global warming. Hundreds of messages filled Atkinson’s inbox, most of them supportive — thanking her or sharing a sense of solidarity. She heard from professors, religious leaders, and just people—from the community and across the country—who had read the newspaper article and felt validated. “Most said that just knowing this seminar existed made them feel less abnormal,” Atkinson told me when we met in her office in November. “It was reassuring to know they’re not some social misfit for feeling devastated about our climate crisis.”

Atkinson assigned readings to her students, including poems by Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan, a commencement address by novelist Barbara Kingsolver called “How to Be Hopeful,” and a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association titled “Climate Change’s Toll on Mental Health.” Though Atkinson had never heard of a college course like hers when she launched it, it turns out she was tapping into a burgeoning field that has increasingly gained traction as psychologists, therapists, and academics like her probe the psychological impact of climate change, arguing that unless we deal with the profound and, at times, paralyzing grief brought on by the destruction of our environment, we’ll never fully be able to tackle the problem. “We can’t afford to educate a generation of young people who aren’t emotionally prepared for what’s coming, what’s already here,” she says.

In 1992, Theodore Roszak, a historian and social critic, coined the term “ecopsychology” in his book The Voice of the Earth, a meditation on how the planet’s health is tied to our mental health. Today, some ecopsychologists and climate psychologists use basic psychological research on infants and caregivers to try to understand the feelings of grief and depression that people experience when the land is damaged or destroyed without intervention.

“Mother Earth is also such a caregiver,” says Per Espen Stoknes, a psychologist and professor at the Norwegian Business School who has studied the issue. “What climate psychology and ecopsychology do is draw certain lines between studies of humans and infants in relation to their caregivers and human grown-ups in relation to the land where we live,” he says. When the environment is despoiled and that relationship is ruptured, our response can be similar to that following the loss of a caregiver, he says. Depression is a reaction to grief over which nothing can be done, Stoknes says, and it comes with a sense of helplessness — that whatever you do, it’s impossible to bring “that good relationship back.” The feeling of helplessness, in turn, interferes with an ability to take action against climate change, which accelerates the cycle.

Others have been working on this problem. In 2011, the American Psychological Association published a paper in its journal on the psychological impacts of global warming. “The challenge of climate change calls for increased ecological literacy, a widened ethical responsibility, investigations into a range of psychological and social adaptations, and an allocation of resources and training to improve psychologists’ competency in addressing climate change–related impacts,” the authors wrote.

More recently, Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who studied how people coped during the Cold War, has pivoted to climate change. In the 1980s, he used the phrase “psychic numbing” to describe how people dealt with the nuclear threat by denying or dismissing it. Now, he argues, some people have become numb to the realities of global warming.

Leslie Davenport, a psychotherapist based in Tacoma, Washington, agrees. She says some of her clients grieve climate change, including people “who aren’t aware that they’re doing so,” she says. “I get people in my office and sometimes there’s kind of this ambient sense of distress, and they may not be able to name that the shifting climate is at least part of what is contributing to their distress.”

As the consequences of climate change become more acute, people will need to remain responsive, Davenport says. A psychological concept called the “window of tolerance” gets at this. The idea is that the window stretches, expands, and contracts. If we’re in the window, we can be responsive. If we’re outside the window, we tend to lash out, withdraw, or isolate ourselves. “When we come to understand either what’s happening in climate change or the predictions of what may come,” she says, “it’s so easy to want to turn away.”

Atkinson seemed wary when I first reached out to her. Among the hundreds of emails that had filled her inbox were about two dozen missives from critics — not to mention the sneering comments on the Seattle Times story calling her students snowflakes and her course absurd. One person commented, “Do the students roll out nap mats and curl up in the fetal position with their blankies and pacifiers while listening to her lectures?” Atkinson addressed the attack in an op-ed for High Country News. The headline: “Addressing climate grief makes you a badass, not a snowflake.”

“Facing the hard truths of our climate crisis takes steady courage and a certain amount of grit,” she wrote. “Today’s students are reaching maturity at a moment when the scale of environmental disruption boggles the mind: increasing wildfires, rising seas and collapsing glaciers, vanishing forests, and displaced communities. And remember that much worse is on the way.”

They need practical skills to avoid burning out, Atkinson told me. She thinks acknowledging their feelings — pain, angst, anger, whatever — is the first step toward managing it.

Rhissa Delfin, 24, was already anxious when she enrolled in Atkinson’s class. Her first year of college had frayed her nerves. That heightened as Atkinson taught them about how the changing climate is affecting cultures around the world. They talked about environmental injustice, and inequality, and communities that are already grappling with severe impacts of climate change.

One person commented on Atkinson’s class, “Do the students roll out nap mats and curl up in the fetal position with their blankies and pacifiers while listening to her lectures?”

“Science classes teach the physics and biology and ecology behind this crisis but don’t give students the tools to manage the anxiety or depression or anger those issues can awaken,” Atkinson says. “So, one of the most important aspects of the class is to simply acknowledge this phenomenon head-on.” For Delfin, an environmental sciences major, parts of the curriculum were troubling, even overwhelming. But eventually the class talked about how to build resiliency so the challenges of climate change wouldn’t feel debilitating. Resiliency, the lecturer says, develops over time, “through a complicated and social process” that she helps promote in part by leading exercises that develop critical thinking, creative writing, and reflection; in essence, confronting intense but amorphous feelings and putting them into words so those words can lead to something more productive than despair. The class also considered societal pressures for people who research and study climate change to remain objective and detached from their work, Delfin says. “This pressure doesn’t do good things for the development of helping the climate situation. Being connected rather than detached from the natural world is far better.”

Looking at what lies ahead, the students also brace for it. For their final project, they must create a “climate survival kit,” complete with what Atkinson considers tools for building emotional resilience. That can mean poetry, practical steps to ground yourself during difficult times, excerpts from inspirational speeches, and letters to future generations. One student included pictures her daughter drew urging adults to take action on behalf the planet and her generation, awaiting what’s to come.

Still, Atkinson says the larger goal of the seminar is to encourage the students to “move beyond self-indulgent forms of personal anguish and recognize structures of injustice and inequality taking the biggest toll on frontline communities across the U.S. and the world.” Poor and vulnerable people are bearing the brunt of climate change, she told me, and she wants her class to think critically about the origins of this crisis and consider questions of inequity and injustice. For some of her students, these aren’t new concepts. Several are first-generation college attendees from marginalized groups “where negative economic and health impacts of environmental disruption have long been a lived reality,” Atkinson says.

Last summer, smoke again blanketed the sky, this time in the Seattle area as wildfires burned to the north in British Columbia. After nine or so months of dreary weather, people in Bothell and elsewhere in wet western Washington were again awaking to gray. Only now the sun burned a muted pink through the haze. The apocalyptic landscape raised the specter of more ruined summers and whole years where residents are shuttered indoors.

“It’s absolutely changed the way that we experience summer,” Atkinson says. Students who spent part of that August with her on a study-abroad seminar in Peru recalled to me the realization that wildfires were worse than when they were kids or the lack of snow in the Seattle area this season. “We haven’t had any this winter,” said Michael Groves, a senior. Mahleah Grant, a senior majoring in environmental studies who is taking Atkinson’s class this semester, told me she’s worried about megafauna. She wants to see a polar bear in the wild, or a lion. She has experienced what she would describe as grief about climate change.

But students shouldn’t expect that Atkinson is going to be able to make everything better. “It’s not my job to convince them of a happy ending to this story,” Atkinson says. “Grief isn’t something to be fixed, because it isn’t unhealthy or dysfunctional… [U]sually, it’s a normal response to loss and a crucial step in the process of recovery. It’s also important for us to keep in mind that accepting and sitting with really difficult emotions isn’t the same as surrendering to despair.”

Atkinson admits that grief isn’t pleasant. But, she says, it helps to recognize that it comes from connection. “And from that perspective,” she adds, “you can find a lot of hope in the insights or actions that arise from environmental grief. Because every time we mourn the loss of something we love — whether a person or place or species or habitat — it puts into perspective what really matters in our lives.”

Maybe, Atkinson says, ecological grief and anger and outrage could give us not just resiliency but also resolve. “To protect what we love,” she says, “and prevent more loss going forward.”

Note: Jennifer Atkinson contacted Medium after this story published because she wanted to recognize the work of Nelville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo in her comments of how ecological grief can put what we value into perspective.

Ciara O'Rourke

Written by

Freelance writer and editor based in Austin, Texas.

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