Climate change and the toll it takes on our mental health


There’s a moment when the diagnosis of climate change and what it means for health really lands. For me, it happened in 2012 as I read an article that made clear that we need to leave the vast majority of economic fossil fuel reserves in the ground or risk an unlivable world within the lifetime of today’s children. I finished the article curled up in the fetal position around my eight-month-old daughter. For months afterwards my first thought upon awakening was of how her prospects for the future had changed. I had trouble concentrating, and every new data point in terms of temperature predictions was a punch to the gut. 

As climate impacts have increased, we have developed words for these emotions: eco anxiety (apprehension and stress about anticipated threats to ecosystems), and ecological grief (grief in relation to ecological loss). As with any difficult news, reactions to the diagnosis of climate change vary: Some people have lots of questions, some are angry, some want to veer away. The wonder of sharing these feelings in compassionate discussion is that it quickly becomes clear that it is normal for people to be distressed by planetary change. By coming together to talk, loneliness decreases, and the community we need to support one another—and to power solutions—is born.

Feelings of eco anxiety and ecological grief can, in fact, be thought of as Constructive Unpleasant Emotions — or CUEs — which let us know that it is time to make space to explore what “depressing talk about climate change,” really means to us. This can help us achieve a centered place where we are able to make the strategic decisions required for us to adapt to the climate impacts we can’t now avoid, and avoid the ones we can’t adapt to. 

What kinds of climate-related impacts to health and health systems do we need to adapt to? Severe wildfires mean we must prepare clean air shelters so people can get exercise and socialize despite smoke. Intense heat waves mean we need to prepare to protect outdoor workers — 65 million potential hours of work were lost in the U.S. in 2018 from extreme heat — and identify elderly people who need support finding cool spaces. 

Thankfully, many key measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions also reduce the 64,000 premature deaths seen in 2016 from fine particulate air pollution in the U.S. Phasing out coal-fired power means less kids in the emergency room with asthma. Getting around by bicycle and on buses via active transport reduces our risk of chronic disease. Increasing the proportion of plant-based foods in our diet decreases the greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and land use associated with our diets while improving our health and making room for forests and the wonder of biodiversity. 

That moment, curled around my daughter, marked the end of one period of my life and the beginning of another. As the Mama Bear instinct kicked in, I reduced my work in the ER to 50 percent of the time to make climate and health-related volunteer work possible. What I have found, and what is born out by the literature, is that action feels better than anxiety. I don’t worry any more, I just do the work.  

Climate-related discussions with children may be the sex-ed talks of our time: best had gradually and as opportunities arise. Kids are smart — leveling with them is best. As with any important topic, my pediatrician husband and I are open in our discussions with our girls, and we work to address the climate emergency together. We’ve figured out how to vacation by public transport, tried new recipes, visited politicians (which is far more fun and effective with my kids there!) and made our first posters for a climate rally. We take time for play — together, outside, and with people we love.

My childrens’ laughter, their joy, takes care of me. And they know that when I’m writing about the climate, or when I’m giving talks, it’s one more way that I’m working to take care of them — by improving the health of this planet that cares for us all.

Dr. Courtney Howard is an emergency physician, President of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, and Earth Policy Director at CODA.