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As climate worsens, environmentalists grapple with the mental toll of activism

Alex Smith, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

While growing up in the ’90s in Johnson County, Kansas, in a suburb of Kansas City, I had a friend, Kevin Aaron, who was a dedicated environmentalist.

To strangers, Kevin appeared to be a laid-back punk-rock music fan with a dry and slightly mischievous sense of humor, but those of us who knew him best saw his passion for sustainability blossom during high school.

In his barbecue-obsessed part of the country, he became the rare vegetarian, driven by witnessing large-scale meat production’s damage to the environment. As he grew into a young man, he eagerly researched and then adopted alternative practices — like driving a hybrid car — that he thought might reduce carbon emissions, if only by tiny measures.

In the early 2000s, Kevin was living in the Bay Area and preparing for a career in climate advocacy, enrolled in a master’s program in city and regional planning while studying for a law degree.

During his graduate studies, he became overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness about the climate. He died by suicide in 2003, at age 27. Kevin had been living with a feeling that his efforts — combined with those of other environmental activists — just wouldn’t be enough to turn the tide on global warming. It added to the depression he was already struggling with, said his mother, Sami Aaron.

Environmental worries can motivate but also overwhelm people. Polling from September 2020 showed that more than half of adults in the U.S. were anxious about how climate change affects their mental health. And nearly 40% of surveyed Gen Z Americans, born after 1996, said addressing climate change is their top personal concern.

 

The loss of Kevin remains a shock for me, and for others who cared about him — especially his mother, who has become increasingly involved in environmental advocacy.

Aaron often turns to nature for comfort, and she picked a former Superfund site in Olathe, Kansas, that has been converted to a flower-filled sanctuary as the spot for us to talk about her son. She said that the more deeply Kevin became involved in environmental activism, the more his thinking about the future turned pessimistic — his mind and mood overtaken by despairing thoughts, like an invasive species.

“There was one little seed that was planted where he couldn’t then quit thinking about it,” she said.

After Kevin died, Aaron found some solace in yoga and meditation, but continued to see her grief as a private struggle — until a few years ago, when she met some environmentalists in the Flint Hills of Kansas who also struggled with mental health issues.

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