In Colombia, people are bracing for an increase in average temperature of as much as 0.9 degrees Celsius by 2040, which could reduce agricultural productivity in a coffee-growing country where more than 40% of the population is already poor. Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s former environment minister, warns that the developing world already faces life-and-death choices tied to global warming.
“These communities’ concern isn’t necessarily that we’re facing the great catastrophe of climate change, and that in 10 years they won’t exist,” he said. “These communities have no guarantee they’ll still exist in two years.”
The sheer number of people across the globe susceptible to climate-induced stress has fostered a sense of urgency among mental health professionals seeking to understand the issue. Virtually anyone “could be affected by climate anxiety, regardless of their own personal vulnerability or relative safety,” according to Susan Clayton, a psychology professor and researcher at The College of Wooster in Ohio.
Several studies have found a sizable minority saying the changing climate already affects their normal functioning. Seattle-based counselor Andrew Bryant said people are anxious about both global warming and being directly affected by a climate disaster. New York psychiatrist Janet Lewis said individuals are struggling with the everyday dissonance of daily activities—things they know are harmful, like eating red meat or driving a gas-burning car.
Lewis, who practices in upstate New York, used to get laughs from colleagues about her climate-related work when she began in 2015. Now there’s increasing evidence that rising temperatures are associated with more violence, including suicide.
The Climate Psychiatry Alliance, of which Lewis is a member, is working with the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America to create training materials for mental health professionals. The American Psychological Association already has a course for practitioners, and Australian nonprofit Psychology for a Safe Climate has produced a professional development series. Other efforts around the globe are also in the works.
Among practitioners, a lack of awareness of climate-related mental health issues creates a risk of misunderstanding. If someone expresses trepidation about having kids because of the climate crisis, a professional not aware of the issue “might think of it as a defense against some deeper, more personal anxieties,” said psychiatrist Elizabeth Haase.
Mental health experts emphasize that communicating with friends and family remains an effective way to cope—not everyone needs a therapist. Still, only 37% of Americans say they talk about global warming on a regular basis with people close to them, according to a survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Exploring the nature of the problem is key to finding ways to psychologically cope, according to Clayton. Climate change is real, so it’s rational to be worried. It’s in flux, so complete adaptation is impossible. And it’s uncertain, so anxiety may be more likely than fear. Normally, Clayton said, it’s possible to face a challenge in at least two ways: solve it or change your attitude towards it. But no one person can slow global warming or climate change, so a sense of powerlessness may take hold—spurring a retreat into denial.
But there’s a third way, she said: finding purpose in the “struggle” to find solutions, from everyday behavior like recycling and buying sustainable food to advocacy. Lewis said people need to be “in touch with their own agency, their own ability to act and influence change rather than being shut down, overwhelmed or just retreating.”