How climate change affected my mental health

Monday, March 16, 2020 - 5:22pm

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Design by Christine Jegarl

When I was a child, my family used to go on nighttime walks during the summer. I remember strolling along the tree-lined sidewalks of New York City, purposefully going down the least well-lit pathways so I could spot fireflies. 

I would gently reach my small hands toward any pulsating green light and softly clasp my fingers together to catch them. My brother and I would giggle as light escaped from our fingertips, the fireflies’ legs tickling our palms. Light pollution may have blocked the visibility of the starry night sky, but we didn’t notice — the fireflies were the stars brought down to earth for us to enjoy. These were stars we could reach. 

As I grew older and my family continued going on walks in the cool summer nights, I saw less and less fireflies. At first, I thought it was because I was growing up and not paying attention to them as much. I soon learned that the light pollution that was blocking me from seeing the night sky was also starting to shield the stars I had played with as a child — the fireflies — on Earth. 

It’s important to establish early education about climate change. Even being from a city whose nickname is the “concrete jungle,” I learned about conservation and climate change from a young age. As a child, I loved going to the Bronx Zoo, where they curate each exhibit so that you must pay attention to conservation efforts and the effects of human-induced climate change on wildlife populations. Before being able to see the gorillas at the zoo, everyone was led into a small theater with dark, plush seats and curtains for walls to watch a short film about what field researchers and conservationists do to help the gorilla population. The image of field researchers carefully treading the moist rainforest soil in search of gorillas is ingrained in my mind, but the conservation lessons that come from it are much more impactful.

In a summer gardening program at the New York Botanical Gardens, my friends and I learned about the impact of pesticides and safe pest control measures, how to properly take care of and sustainably harvest a plot of land and how to use the harvest to make food and to feed other animals. 

I was living in a bubble, young and surrounded by environmentally-conscious family and friends who introduced me to progressive modes of thought. The world I lived in when I was younger was trying to work its hardest to live in harmony with the planet and save its creatures — rehabilitating endangered populations, using environmentally-friendly cleaning products and using reusable bags well before a plastic bag ban was in effect. 

I grew up thinking environmental regulations were of importance to the government, never dreaming that future leaders would threaten them. I thought it was a fact of life that our world will only get better from here. I strongly believed that we were on a path to living lives that would benefit — not harm — the planet.

As I grew older and met more people, my world expanded. I had to learn that there were people who did not grow up familiar with conservation efforts, who did not know of ways to live with, as opposed to against, the planet and other animals. I learned that there are people who are not empathetic to animals, plants and the inanimate parts of the earth. To this day, it is difficult for me to understand these mentalities, especially as our climate quickly and dramatically deteriorates.

The list of climate change effects is a long one: the Great Barrier Reef dying, the longer periods of drought and heat, habitat loss on a massive scale due to products such as palm oil or fires, the increased frequencies of natural disasters.

I developed climate anxiety as a result of the rapid tangible changes in ecosystems due to climate change. Human-driven climate change is not only potentially physically harmful, but psychologically harmful as well. Research shows that climate change has and will continue to exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

I witnessed the growing climate anxiety not only in myself, but in others, first hand with the bushfires in Australia, which not only impacted the country of Australia but the entire world. Social media was flooded with pictures of severely burned animals, videos of koalas coming up to tourists for water and stories of people losing their homes. The air quality dropped drastically and situations became dangerous in major cities, like Sydney. You could see the haze of the smoke from South America.

The Australian bushfires were uncontrollable, leaving a lot of people feeling helpless. As I currently write this from Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic, I can tell you that Australians don’t panic unless there is reason to panic. While family and friends in the United States bombard me with messages about COVID-19, life goes on in Australia. So you can imagine how impactful an event would have to be to startle the people of Australia, and that is exactly what the bushfires have done here.

Every single professor I have had here in Melbourne has mentioned the bushfires during their class — both their psychological and ecological impact. Even though the smoke’s haze has cleared, it has revealed mass habitat destruction. 

My climate anxiety manifests itself in a rush of emotions — anger, disappointment, sadness, nervousness — and can creep up at any time. Hearing about the recent Australian bushfires forced me to stop looking at my phone. I couldn’t look at social media without my chest tightening and my heart racing. My eyes welled up with tears at the sight of displaced animals. 

Even smaller events trigger my climate anxiety: Whenever I witness people sorting their trash incorrectly, when I see people using single-use plastic, when I hear people say that their one lifestyle change will not make a difference or when I watch our nation’s leaders deny that climate change is an issue driven by human impact. My climate anxiety is triggered when I hear that the University is willing to arrest students — climate warriors — who are fighting for our future by telling those in power to take accountability in their major monetary contribution to climate change.

As I grew older, I drastically changed my lifestyle. My lifestyle acts as a therapy for me. I became vegetarian and greatly reduced my animal product consumption after observing farming practices during a veterinary sciences trip to Costa Rica. I reduce my time in the shower and try to only thrift and buy sustainably-made clothing. 

My climate anxiety is caused by a feeling of a lack of control. We have few leaders to look up to, and environmental policy never seems to be at the forefront of our political sphere or in the media. The anxiety is further perpetuated by the feeling that our generation will be left to clean up the mess past generations have made. 

I have had conversations with friends who are seriously considering a future that includes not having children because they do not want to bring someone into a world that will soon be unbearable to live in. 

There is no “cure” to any mental health illness, but climate anxiety can be alleviated with a group effort. First and foremost, vote for those in government whose main priority is to help the environment. Educate yourself on conservation efforts and the facts about climate change. Know that every action has a large impact, a ripple effect. We need to take control with our votes, our actions and our minds — and do it with compassion. It’s not a cure, but it’s a start to a solution.

Isabelle Hasslund is a junior studying Music in SMTD and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in LSA. She can be reached at hasslund@umich.edu.