“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!
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