Climate Change and Mental Health: The Role of Counselors in Eco-Anxiety

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Climate change isn’t just hurting the environment — it’s negatively affecting people’s mental health. Sixty-seven percent of Americans polled in 2020 said they felt anxious about climate change and its effects, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Climate change demonstrators holding cardboard signs reading “Save our planet,” “We don’t have time!” and “Save the Earth no plastic.”

Young people may feel climate consequences even more strongly; in 2022, 75% of people 16 to 25 years old from 10 different countries reported feeling frightened about the future given the realities of climate change, according to a research study published in The Lancet.

Given how common anxiety about climate change is, counselors must be trained to recognize and address the complex entanglement of climate change and mental health. Earning an advanced degree can help counseling professionals develop the tools to help those struggling with climate anxiety.

Examining the Link Between Climate Change and Mental Health

Mental health issues are among the major causes of suffering in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and stress reactions to climate change can negatively affect people in both the short term and the long term.

The grim realities of climate change and human-created greenhouse gas emissions as its primary cause have been unequivocally confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Through this activity, human beings have unintentionally increased the frequency of natural disasters, quickened the pace of sea level rise, induced heat waves and droughts, and contributed to the spread of vector-borne disease.

The results? Human beings across the globe are at increased risk of being unable to access safe housing, clean drinking water, sanitation, nutritious food and stable work, according to IPCC and the Human Rights Council.

Climate change affects mental health in many different ways. For example, The Lancet found that 50% of young people experiencing climate anxiety had symptoms that affected their daily functioning, including impairments that disrupted their capacities to sleep, eat, focus and connect with others.

Researchers across many different disciplines have found that climate change can affect mental health both directly and indirectly.

How Climate Change Directly Affects Mental Health

In the case of acute events caused by climate change, such as flash floods or forest fires, the stress (and in some cases, trauma) associated with experiencing these events can have ruinous effects on the mental health of those affected. The American Psychological Association reports that extreme weather events correlated with elevated rates of severe and chronic depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other mental health disorders.

The stress and trauma of climate change-induced extreme weather events therefore directly impact mental health for the worse.

Extreme stress can exacerbate existing mental health conditions, affecting a person’s mood, behavior and body. Common physical effects of stress include sleep disruptions, fatigue, headaches, muscle tension and digestive issues — all of which can make taking care of one’s mental health and well-being more difficult. And people who experience chronic stress may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms that ultimately do more harm than good.

Some people also experience feelings of grief, anxiety and hopelessness when thinking about the future and the prospect of living in a world that continues to experience the negative effects of climate change.

How Climate Change Indirectly Affects Mental Health

Climate change can also worsen mental health through more insidious, indirect means. After a devastating weather event, for example, entire communities may experience scarcity due to a loss of safe housing, clean water and other key resources, spurring animosity and weakening social support networks.

In the long term, climate change is likely to bring about massive changes to the way populations live and work. Climate change will likely continue to contribute to:

  • Disease transmission, including increased cases of insect-transmitted diseases such as malaria and Lyme disease
  • Food scarcity
  • Pollution
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Job loss
  • Human migration

Climate Change Inequities: Vulnerable Groups Disproportionately Affected

The link between climate change and mental health is especially pronounced among certain vulnerable populations. Climate change can amplify existing inequalities and disproportionately harm the mental and physical health of people from such groups, according to a report published by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica. Especially vulnerable are groups that already face health disparities due to economic inequality, inadequate access to health care, and forms of marginalization and discrimination such as racism, homophobia and xenophobia, as well as populations that are already at risk for psychiatric disorders.

More specifically, vulnerable groups include:

  • People who are experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity
  • Low-income individuals
  • Members of minority racial and ethnic groups
  • Older adults with existing health conditions, who are more susceptible than younger adults to weather-related injuries such as heat stroke and hypothermia

In particular, the IPCC identifies people and communities that rely on delicate ecosystems such as coastal lands and tundra as being at especially high risk of facing threats from climate change, as these areas are most likely to experience severe and permanent environmental damage.

Structural inequalities play a huge role in further fueling mental health issues already affected by climate change. Additional research published by the American Psychiatric Association shows that people living with mental illness are more likely to suffer due to infrastructure breakdowns and disruptions to service delivery as a result of climate disasters.

During heat waves, the ability of individuals taking psychiatric medications to respond to the level of heat and perceive unhealthy rises in their body temperature may be compromised, according to the American Psychiatric Association, which can result in injury and even death. Also, children are more likely than adults to experience distress and trauma as a result of displacement, evacuations, caregiver stress and separation from caregivers as a result of extreme weather events.

What Is Climate Anxiety?

The term “climate anxiety” (also called eco-anxiety) may be less familiar to people than the experience of climate anxiety itself. This condition is a stress response due to prolonged fear and dread related to climate deterioration that can present in many different ways, according to Public Health Watch, which states that climate anxiety “can manifest as dysthymia, in which people are sad for the state of the world, and contribute to generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, panic disorder and insomnia.”

Nathaniel Ivers, associate professor and chair of Wake Forest University’s Department of Counseling, notes that the symptoms of climate anxiety are very similar to other forms of anxiety. Symptoms can include “restlessness, fatigue, irritability, difficulties with concentration, insomnia, oversleeping, emotional dysregulation, increased heart rate, tension, thoughts and feelings of impending doom or danger, and headaches.”

Mental health experts, including leaders at the American Psychiatric Association, describe climate anxiety as a rational response to the severity and extremity of the current and impending climate crisis. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year due to climate-sensitive conditions such as malnutrition, malaria and heat stress between 2030 and 2050.

Because climate anxiety presents a real threat to the safety and well-being of humans, mental health counselors should be trained to address this phenomenon in therapeutic contexts, says Smithsonian Magazine.

How Climate Anxiety May Be Both Rational and Debilitating

Counselors must be careful not to pathologize their clients’ climate anxiety. On the one hand, feeling anxious about global climate degradation makes sense. As an emotional signal, anxiety attempts to direct a person’s attention, and climate change certainly calls for attention. On the other hand, climate anxiety can have negative effects on a person’s well-being.

Rather than automatically assuming that client concerns about climate change are disproportionate or delusional, counselors should recognize that climate anxiety can be both rational, because it tracks actual threats to their well-being, and debilitating, when it causes a person to become burned out or otherwise less able to function.

How Extreme Weather Events Spur Eco-Anxiety

Extreme weather events are another facet of the link between climate change and mental health. As described earlier, extreme weather events such as hurricanes and droughts can cause physical harm and increase stress. Sadly, such events are becoming increasingly common. Over 40% of Americans live in a county that experienced an extreme weather event in 2021, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

Increased ambient air temperatures due to climate change have also been found to have disastrous effects on people’s mental health. In a landmark longitudinal study published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers found that from 2010 to 2019, higher-than-average warm-season temperatures correlated with increased risks for mental health conditions, as shown by a decade of emergency department visit data. Researchers found that extreme heat was associated with an increased number of emergency department visits for:

  • Substance use disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Schizophrenia
  • Mood disorders
  • Childhood-onset behavioral disorders

Rising temperatures during heat waves are associated with increases in emergency care and hospital admissions for mental health conditions as well as increased suicide rates, according to a 2022 study published by The Lancet.

And it’s not just adults who experience adverse mental health effects due to climate change. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine links air pollution from burning fossil fuels to symptoms of anxiety and depression in children.

To sum up, adverse mental health effects associated with extreme weather include:

  • Distress associated with environmental degradation and displacement
  • Climate despair, or acute forms of depression, rage, and hopelessness as a result of wide-scale climate changes
  • Increased risks of hospitalization and suicide

How Counselors Can Help People Experiencing Eco-Anxiety

Counselors and therapists need to acknowledge how climate change bears upon their own work as mental health professionals. Scientific American noted in a 2021 article that, while the American Psychiatric Association recognizes climate change as a hazard to mental health, many mental health professionals never received formal training in supporting clients with climate anxiety specifically.

Counselors have an important role to play in supporting those experiencing climate change-related stressors and mental health issues, including eco-anxiety. While a small number of therapists develop subspecialties that focus on environmental awareness, such as eco-therapy, all counselors can learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of climate change-related mental health issues and support those experiencing them.

Counselors can help their clients build resilience and develop healthy coping strategies in response to climate change. Ivers suggests that counselors helping clients with climate anxiety may employ cognitive-behavioral approaches, helping them “deconstruct unhealthy thoughts and dysfunctional behaviors into healthier and more functional thoughts and behaviors.”

Consider some of the many mental health interventions that counselors can help with.

Naming and Honoring One’s Feelings

Counselors can help clients identify and acknowledge their complex emotional responses to climate change, affirming that anger, sadness, fear, grief and despair are all common ways to respond to this global crisis. Scientific American reported that over 40% of Americans used terms such as “helpless” and “disgusted” when describing their feelings about climate change in 2020.

Despite these feelings being so common, however, climate anxiety and grief can be hard to express.

As one writer for Scientific American describes it, “As individuals, it’s easy to feel helpless to stop the destruction of the biosphere.” That’s where counselors can step in. Helping clients to precisely name and honor the specific feelings raised by the environment’s destruction can be the first step in learning the coping skills necessary to continue functioning in the face of climate change.

Processing Complex Experiences

Counselors can support clients by helping them process the stress associated with extreme weather events and the experience of living in a world affected by climate change.

In a study of 1,700 American children who lived through four major hurricanes — Ike, Charley, Katrina and Andrew — up to half developed PTSD symptoms, and 10% experienced these symptoms chronically, according to Scientific American. Counselors must prepare to support clients experiencing PTSD symptoms brought about by both the direct and indirect effects of environmental disasters.

Such experiences in adults and children may be multifaceted. Expert counselors will be able to recognize that helping clients process their complex emotions brought about by environmental catastrophe will take time and may be further complicated by familial distress and displacement, grief at the loss of plant and animal diversity, housing instability, and migration brought about by disaster.

Building Community

Counselors can encourage clients to seek support from their friends, family and the larger community. People with social support are more likely to show emotional resilience in response to climate anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association.

Moreover, engaging in collective actions to combat climate change, like peer education, community outreach or advocacy, may be more likely to foster a sense of social support than taking individual actions such as turning off lights and using less water. Counselors can help their clients think about the ways they can join together with others to make a positive difference in their communities.

Developing Emotional Resilience

Counselors can help clients develop strategies to boost their emotional resilience. In the face of perceived threats, people need the ability to regulate their emotions. Given that climate change is both a pervasive and an ongoing threat with no clear end in sight, individuals and communities must develop the resilience to cope in life-affirming ways. These may be a combination of self-care techniques (getting rest, eating healthy foods and seeking support) and communal-care techniques (providing mutual aid and joining community activities).

Resting to Avoid Burnout

The prolonged stress surrounding climate change and individual inadequacies in properly addressing this global issue can lead to burnout. Emotional burnout is exhaustion that results from prolonged and excessive stress — a state that a person with climate anxiety may be at risk of slipping into without proper support.

Counselors can teach clients techniques for preventing burnout that focus on rest and relaxation. They can help clients navigate their journey as they learn to live with climate anxiety, climate despair and other intense emotional reactions to climate change.

Making a Safety Plan

Counselors can help clients develop safety plans for keeping themselves stable and emotionally secure during a mental health crisis. A safety plan is a detailed, sequenced outline of the coping strategies and sources of support that a person can draw upon in the midst of a crisis. These written instructions should be easily accessible, such as a list saved in a cloud-stored note or on a piece of paper kept in a bedside table drawer.

Each person has different access to resources and supports that can help them through crises, so counselors should work with clients to identify what resources are available to them.

Becoming Empowered to Take Direct Action

By providing ongoing emotional support, counselors can empower their clients to take direct action against climate change. Ultimately, counseling is unlikely to make climate anxiety go away completely, but by learning resilience strategies, clients may gain the skills they need to live healthy lives and pursue policy change and reforms that can address climate change.

How Counselors Can Help Mitigate Eco-Anxiety

The impacts of climate change are well-documented, and counselors must step up to support clients struggling with their mental health as a result of climate-related stressors.

Are you ready to take the next step to become a counselor? In the Wake Forest University online Master of Arts in Counseling program, students learn from nationally renowned counseling thought leaders. Discover how Wake Forest can help you pursue your professional goals and improve lives.

Recommended Readings:

Serving Humanity: Career Opportunities in Mental Health

Black Mental Health: Statistics, Resources and Services for the Black Community

Minimizing the Impact That COVID-19 Has on Schoolchildren


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