“Depression is such a cruel punishment. There are no fevers, no rashes, no blood tests to send people scurrying in concern, just the slow erosion of self, as insidious as cancer. And like cancer, it is essentially a solitary experience; a room in hell with only your name on the door”
If you're like me, or one of the other hundreds of millions out there who have experienced depression at some point, you understand that feeling. And if you haven't, there's always the chance that life's circumstances could throw you down that path anyway.
What if I were to tell you that one of the growing threats to our mental health, both increasing the rate of afflictions and worsening the severity of symptoms, is climate change?
In a fairly new realm of psychology, researchers have begun to look at the mental ramifications of a changing climate, exploring a new phenomenon that has been coined 'climate depression'. This climate depression is being seen to affect us on multiple levels: 1) the alarmism around the severity of climate change is increasing depression and anxiety, 2) the changing climate itself is harming our mental health, and 3) our declining mental health is likely harming the climate.
Especially prevalent in climate scientists and environmentalists, rates of depression have been on the rise among those most heavily involved in the fight against a warming climate. Faced with experimental confirmations of our growing demise and potential doomsday scenarios, as well as the constant headache of trying to educate an often willfully ignorant public, these people at the forefront are confronted with the emotional exhaustion of a burden too great for any one person to bear.
And on the other end, hearing a constant barrage of alarmist warnings does little but breed anxiety and discord among an already disillusioned populace. Our 24 hour news cycle drills into us the severity of all the world's problems, with climate change being a growing threat. This non-stop onslaught has led people down a dark path of mental decline, as fears and worries about their safety and livelihoods have grown.
A seemingly insurmountable problem, it can be overwhelming for even the best of us to stare down this climate beast. And due to the persistence of such overwhelming adversity, it is being shown to cause increases in depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
Next, there are the tangible effects of the changing climate itself. Climate change has been shown to increase the strength and severity of various natural disasters and extreme situations around the world. From the growing effects of storms and droughts, to fires and floods, to rising sea levels, and even a greater risk of earthquakes, the stresses of life in a warming climate are already being shown to wreak havoc on our psyches.
Studies have shown that, following in the wake of hurricanes, there is a sudden increase in levels of PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Following Hurricane Katrina, reporting of suicidal thoughts increased from 2.8% to 6.4%, and actual suicidal plans rose from 1% to 2.5%. Suicide rates have been shown to increase among farmers in India during times of drought, as well as in Italy in regions experiencing significantly increased climate variation.
The numbers go on and on, and the pile of evidence continues to grow. Climate change is potentially as devastating mentally as it is physically. Hotter weather makes us more angsty. Polluted air decreases our cognitive function. Rising sea levels are a constant stressor for those near the coast. And the physical toll is leaving lasting mental trauma, which is now being observed to linger years after the initial climate-induced tragedy has long since passed.
And then, there's the effect our decline in mental health could be having on the climate itself. Some of the symptoms of both depression and anxiety can include apathy, withdrawing, loss of interest, feelings of hopelessness, and so on. When faced with large-scale problems (like, say, climate change), which require action from so many of us, increases in apathy and hopelessness among the public begin to add up.
Every person who begins to suffer from a decline in mental health is thus less likely or well-equipped to take up arms in the climate fight. When facing such great odds, it becomes even easier to throw up one's hands and give in to those feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. The worse we allow mental states to decline, the less able we become to fight this climate battle. Which will, in turn, increase the decline in mental health even further, weakening our ability to respond yet more, and so on in a vicious cycle.
So enough with the negativity, how do we move forward from here?
First and foremost, it is critical that we take the utmost care of ourselves. If we do not look after ourselves first, we are powerless to have any impact beyond that. Meditation, therapy, exercise, eating healthy, it all matters. For those working in the field, it is necessary to experience some level of work-life separation. While the threat may be dire, it is crucial for us to take the time to clear our heads and recharge, so that we can approach the problem refreshed and ready. While we want to tackle this issue head on, we must all take the time to enjoy the world still around us, and appreciate the many good things that are still out there. Take care of yourself, focus on the good.
The next step involves taking action with the small things we can handle. We often hear that the small actions don't matter, but every little bit adds up--especially with over 7 billion of us out here! And especially for those already feeling anxious and/or depressed, it is often hard enough to start with small actions. But from small successes, we are often able to get enough sense of satisfaction to then take on another action. These small steps begin to add up over time, and we gain the strength of mind to take on subsequently larger tasks. Start small, and grow as you go.
Tied to that, is the impact we can have on those closest to us. When approaching a global issue like climate change, it can often feel like the only solutions involve global influence. But when we impact those around us, we can empower them to influence those around them. Small conversations and heart-to-heart talks can have far greater-reaching implications than we might imagine, and every mind changed can ripple out into a much greater cascade. Focus on your circle.
And, while it is important that we make changes in our own lives, it is just as important that we not feel guilty over mistakes and imperfections. I still have to drive my car, for now. Plastic is still a painful reality. Certain things will remain unfortunate necessities for the time being, but that could change as attitudes shift over time. But when we get down on ourselves for not living up to standards of perfection, we speed our own mental decline. Strive for progress, not perfection.
Studies have shown that people who routinely engage in changes and actions to limit climate change also display increases in mental well-being. That's right, fighting the climate fight actually helps you feel better!
Take action in the ways you can, help others do the same, and, just maybe, we can begin to turn the tide in this global climate fight!
Next Up-- Phrasing!: Why the language we use is so important for the messages we want to send!
A couple additional sources:
This was a topic I had initially planned for down the road, but then this study came out two weeks ago, and I decided I wanted to lead with it.
What does it mean to be a man?
While every answer will be different, I am sure there will be some commonalities. Strong. Masculine. Brave. Confident. Charming.
Sure, those qualities are all great, but how many would answer with vulnerable? Emotional? Compassionate? Environmentally-friendly?
There is currently a strong backlash against toxic masculinity in our society--and for good reason. The atmosphere that has persisted for so long is being shown to harm both men and women, personally, professionally, academically, and otherwise. But very seldom, if at all, is that toxicity associated with its effects on conservation and environmentalism.
In that recent study I spoke of, researchers found that men were less likely to engage in eco-friendly actions as such actions could be perceived as 'feminine' or 'weak'. They would be less inclined to purchase environmentally-friendly options if it in some way threatened their perception of their own masculinity. And if men engaged in such actions, they would be more likely to engage in some detrimental behavior shortly after to reassert their sensation of 'manliness'.
What if we dig into that even deeper? What are some of the activities that come to mind when you think 'manly'?
Hunting. Fishing. Fighting. Driving big trucks.
The urge to kill. To pollute. To assert oneself, over others and the natural world.
It becomes a challenge, then, in getting men to protect and preserve, when their societally-bred instincts say the exact opposite. Why care about that adorable endangered mouse species, when your friends might call you 'gay'? Why buy a Prius versus an SUV or pickup truck, when it makes you 'a pussy'? Why not hunt a grizzly or a lion to prove how alpha you are? Or act like you don't care about the environment, because not caring is that cool, aloof thing that 'real' men do.
So how do we address these issues that have been so ingrained into our culture over the years?
One option is to do as suggested in that article linked, to make the branding of eco-friendly products more 'strong' and 'masculine'. To market options more directly towards men, in a more manly fashion. And in the short run, I do see that as a viable option. But, at best, it is more of a band aid than a true fix. We would not be allowing men to embrace conservation as a noble cause, in and of itself, we would only be making certain actions and choices more appealing to those macho men. If we are not addressing the root cause, the culture of toxic masculinity itself, then we are not creating a truly better situation.
When I speak of toxic masculinity, I refer to that drive to feel 'manly' at all costs. The perceived threat men experience when one is labelled 'weak' or 'feminine'. The need to reassert a sense of masculinity when that manhood has been threatened. The long-term solution needs to be in addressing these perceptions, and changing the tide of this culture.
And how do we do that?
MEN: Be more willing to be open and vulnerable in your lives. With your significant others, sure, but also with your family and friends. Especially with your guy friends. Show the other men around you that it is okay to be more open and open-minded. Learn to be comfortable in who you are, rather than whop you think you should be. Let those perceived threats to your masculinity roll right off. Be less judgmental towards other men when you see them doing things that don't live up to your standards of what it is to be a man.
LADIES: Encourage and support the men in your lives. Husbands, brothers, fathers, sons; don't submit them to shame or humiliation for not being 'man enough'. In that study linked, the authors found that even women perceived environmentally-friendly choices to be more 'feminine'. And so it becomes just as important for you to feel less judgment when a man is acting in a way that you perceive is less than 'man enough'. Raise sons with compassion and empathy. Praise your brothers and boyfriends when they open up to you. Engage with your fathers and grandfathers on a deeper level.
Similar to the concepts I had addressed last week, when men are constantly forced to prove and maintain their sense of masculinity, it leaves no room for growth or change in other areas of their lives.
When this culture begins to change, it becomes less necessary for us to worry about 'masculine' versus 'feminine' branding and marketing. A healthier attitude towards masculinity will allow men to make decisions without worry about how it affects their own perceptions of their manhood. Men can begin to embrace the environmental movement with less judgment, real or perceived, about their social standing.
Let's work on being 'man enough' to be compassionate and caring. To give a shit about the world we live in, and the others with whom we share it. Be 'man enough' that you're not at all worried about whether you're 'man enough'.
Coming next week-- Climate Depression: How a changing climate is affecting our mental health!
It may seem odd, that for someone so dedicated to conservation and environmental protection, I am so heavily focused on mental health and humanitarianism. So follow along here, and I'll break down my rationale (I assure you, there's good reason).
The more I have delved into the world of conservation, the more I have begun to beat my head against the same wall: people generally just don't care. Not enough to actually DO something. Sure, you get all teary-eyed watching a Facebook video of a starving polar bear or looking at a picture of slaughtered dolphins. Maybe you even muster the courage to click the 'Angry Face' button, or, even more drastically, leave a scathing, emotionally-charged comment.
But how many people actually take real action? Donate, volunteer their time, change their very way of life?
I feel that much of this comes back to some deeper societal issues. We are living in a culture drained of compassion. Our way of life has diminished our empathy. Empathy is the ability to personally feel and understand the experience of another. Compassion being the ability to sympathize with that experience, and a strong motivator toward action. And how many of us truly practice self-compassion regularly to reinforce our own mental health?
If we can't get people to care about the humans living just across the invisible border line, or the ones living in the 'wrong' neighborhood, or the ones with a different shade of brown to their skin, then how can we get them to care about that endangered fish species which they've neither seen nor even heard of? When a culture of toxic masculinity prevents men from allowing themselves to be seen as "weak" or "feminine", how can you convince them to show compassion to an animal they feel they'd be better suited by killing in a display of masculine dominance? When people are already suffering from depression and anxiety and neuroticism, how can we address the drastic problems of a changing climate without causing people to throw their arms up in futility?
The way I see it, human issues ARE conservation issues.
We live in human societies and deal with human problems on a daily basis. When we fail to address those human issues first, we have no emotional or physical energy left to fight the battles beyond that. If I am stuck living paycheck to paycheck, then I won't have the means to address deeper global issues. If I am drained by toxic and abusive relationships in my life, then I won't have the emotional wherewithal to address seemingly indomitable challenges like ocean acidification.
In order to begin addressing this, we must take care of our own personal situations and those around us. We must build ourselves up, and begin to build up those closest to us. So not only will we gain the strength to address the issues in our own personal lives, we will obtain a stronger ability to address those concerns beyond just ourselves.
And that is one of the many reasons why I seek to be a better and more compassionate person in every aspect of my life. When you boost your own life, it has a way of rubbing off on those around you. (Quite literally! Check out the most recent research into emotional contagion.) And when people start to care more about themselves and each other, they can start caring more about the rest of the world.
So I intend to write deeper into these topics. I plan to live them out in my life. When we become better about our own mental health and sense of compassion, I believe we can become better about conservation and the larger problems of the world as well. It is hard to completely change your lifestyle when you feel no connection to those around you. But when you begin to feel that interconnectedness and empathy for all of our earthly companions, it becomes less of a difficult choice and more of a necessary adaption.
Go out and live empathetically. Feel more compassion.
Coming next week...The effects of toxic masculinity on conservation. Stay tuned!
We hear it all the time. We tell it to others when we're trying to be supportive. We post eloquent quotes about it on social media and act like we're ridiculously enlightened. Chase your passions!
But how many of us can say we are truly pursuing our passions in life? We like to talk about loving a job so much that it doesn't feel like work, and yet we complain every Monday about starting that miserable work week all over again. We tell our children to dream big dreams, and then we tell our young adults to pick a 'sensible' degree to find a job to pay the bills.
Understandably, our passions change as we grow older. I don't want to be a dinosaur anymore, I think I outgrew that one. I have come to terms with the idea that I'll never be an Olympic athlete. But there are still so many passions inside me that have been buried and walled off over the years.
Fear keeps us paralyzed. It stops us from pursuing those passions, because, deep down, we fear being rejected. We fear being humiliated. We fear failing in those passions. And, often, we fear achieving those passions. We so often live our lives plagued by this fear, and bury our passions so that we can stay safe and comfortable.
I'm happy to open up about my hardships and failures at this point in my life. Not as a matter of complaint, but as the lesson I've begun to learn. I've lived most of my 2017 without passion. (Hell, much of my 2016, too.) I focused on practical. On what I have, how much I make, and whether I'm pleasing others. I stayed closed-off and shut-down. And I think it showed.
And for me, a funny thing happened when it felt like I was bottoming out: I really began to lose that fear. Chasing my passion is no longer scary when I can't fear failure. If I feel like I'm already failing.
But you shouldn't have to fall into those dark places to get there. Start pursuing even one passion, and watch your life begin to improve. Stop going through the motions, and start living now. We always want to wait until a comfortable or convenient time to do so, and when that time never comes, we end up filled with regrets. Take the first step. The change that comes with doing something you love will propel you on to the next step. And the next.
My change is happening now. I'm making more art, no longer because I feel like I should, but because I want to. I'm diving deeper into my health, both physically and mentally, more than I ever really have before. I'm digging into what I want academically, professionally, and personally. I'm making time to see the people who matter to me, to travel to the places I want to see, and to do the activities I enjoy.
It won't all be success, and that's fine. We can't win all the time. But I will be focusing on the things that truly motivate and inspire me, and that's what matters.
I'm not going to be a full-time artist. But I'm going to grow this side project and see how much of an impact I can make with it. I may decide not to go all the way for that PhD I've always wanted, but I will damn sure be getting that Master's. I may not get to visit every country, but I'm going to see as many as I can in the time I have. Work will always be work, but I intend to use my work to better people's lives and change the world. I will not be perfect, but I will always strive to be better every day. And I have no clue exactly where this blog will lead me, but I have an idea and I want to play it out.
So chase your passions, friends. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. Today. Right now.
Follow along here with me, if it helps. Through this literary journey, I intend to wind my path through my passions of art and science, conservation and the brain, mental health and motivation. And if you need a little help along the way, reach out to me. One of my passions has always been helping to lift others up.
Let's take this road together. The chase is on!
I wanted to make a website to feature my artwork, and figured, what the heck, why not throw in a blog page as well? So I'd like to say: welcome to my site, I hope you enjoy at least some small part of it! I plan to update it as often as I can with fresh art and posts, and I hope you come back to visit often.
I plan to add a store page soon, so that those who wish to purchase any art can do so. For the time being, feel free to contact me (see Contact page) if you want any info, would like to purchase an old piece, or want to commission a new one.
And come back to visit this blog page to see my wildly random and assorted thoughts ranging from art, to ocean conservation, to other scattered concepts. I'll update it weekly, or monthly, or never. I'm spontaneous like that.
Thanks for visiting!