Our Mental Health in a Changing Climate (Guest Post)
For this week's blog post, we have Omar Sadoon as a guest to share his story as a Registered Nurse / climate activist’s perspective on mental health and eco-anxiety.
With impressive hands on experience in mental health, and the passion and proficiency to tackle climate change, Omar truly is one of a kind. Omar spent the first decade of his career working in Mental Health in Canada. He trained and worked as a Registered Nurse, but after working through the pandemic, he saw the parallels for how climate change and COVID-19 are negatively impacting the poorest communities. More recently, he joined Planetary Hydrogen to help unlock the potential of the oceans for carbon dioxide removal (CDR). He says that the best decision he’s ever made was to stop pursuing money and titles and instead focus on relationships and building a community of passionate climate activists. Omar is a Business Strategy Intern at Planetary Hydrogen and a Master’s of Climate Change Candidate at the University of Waterloo. You can connect with him on LinkedIn. I hope you enjoy his piece and please share your feedback in the comments or with him directly.
Adapting to Eco-Anxiety
Loss can be defined as a reduction in the tangible or intangible resources for which an emotional investment has been made. In the context of climate change, a growing number of people are reporting an increasing sense of loss. This past year, the humans of planet earth were offered a stark and disheartening IPCC update about our home. The climate crisis is here, and it will be impacting us with increasing ferocity over the coming decades. Glimmers of hope exist along narrow pathways, but these paths require tremendous courage, sacrifice, and global cooperation.
A new set of terms is emerging in popular culture that seeks to describe this sense of loss. Ecological grief, Solastalgia, and Eco-Anxiety are three terms used on overlapping issues relating to environmental fears and humanity's sense of loss. Research and publishing have already been done to show the predicted economic losses from climate change. Still, there is a scarcity of work on how those experiencing acute or chronic mental health concerns related to the environment can adequately understand it, cope with it, and ideally treat these conditions.
Conceptualizing Ecological Grief and Solastalgia
The first two terms offer some overlap, but place and time help create some delineating lines. Cunsolo and Ellis define Ecological Grief as "the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change."
For example, the kayaker that has a great deal of their personal identity linked to their favorite river or local waterway. When they see this place changed by damming, drought, or shifts in the ecosystem from climate change, they feel a deep sense of loss for the intangible experience and the tangible resources because of the emotional investment made.
Solastalgia has a unique twist; before the environmental degradation has even occurred (and while it is occurring), feelings of homesickness are pushing up to the surface. The act of bearing witness to the changes exacerbates the sense of loss. Galway et al. defined Solastalgia as "the distress caused by the unwelcome transformation of cherished landscapes resulting in cumulative mental, emotional and spiritual health impacts."
There is a scarcity of work on how those experiencing acute or chronic mental health concerns related to the environment can adequately understand it, cope with it, and ideally treat these conditions.
In 2017 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) defined eco-anxiety as a "chronic fear of environmental doom." As succinct and pointed as it is, this definition does not hold a place in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is the "bible" or reference manual for mental health professionals to diagnose and treat mental disorders. Using the DSM-5, we can understand fear and anxiety as future-oriented emotions, and in opposition are grief, regret, and shame focused on past experiences. The term Eco-Anxiety could be used as a "catch-all" for our climate crisis fears.
Risk or Motivator
Advancing these popularized terms (Ecological Grief, Solastalgia, and Eco-Anxiety) and their diagnostics and treatment will require an understanding of if these emotions are deemed constructive or unconstructive. When Psychiatrists and Psychologists seek to diagnose illnesses such as Anxiety Disorders, a vital element of the DSM-5 criteria is whether the fear is rational (climate fears arguably are entirely rational) and if there is a constructive action the patient can take to cope with them. It's possible that although eco-anxiety may not be a diagnosable illness, it is associated with constructive actions and may be potentially helpful in motivating large numbers.
In the United Kingdom alone, an opinion poll showed 85% of Britons are "concerned" when asked about climate change, with a further 52% of the majority being "very concerned."
Researchers tried to determine how these thoughts were being processed and what may drive further action to combat these concerns. The survey takers primarily saw global warming/ climate change as a threat that was both proximal and distal; The immediate fears of extreme weather events and future security issues related to weather, economy, food security, war, and migration. A significant correlation for whether the eco-anxiety would result in an action is whether the individual had a "green" self-identity (Defined loosely as pro-environmental views and behaviors). Yet, there is polarity in reactions and sometimes a wavering between extremes when discussing climate change's mental health impacts.
Leaving Open Space: The Dialectic Model
Even when we've identified an individual or group that can process their fears and anxieties into actions, there remains distinct hopelessness when faced with the scale of the problem. The issue of climate change is so complex, so significant, and it touches so many different facets of human life that opposing feelings even within oneself is a shared experience.
The challenge is adapting to the new constraints and realities of climate change in the physical world but leaving space for ourselves to adjust our thinking and accept that polarities exist. This is where dialectical psychotherapy approaches can help us better treat or contain our conflicted feelings about climate change. Dialectics is a well-used tool in psychotherapy for finding truth between opposing concepts, and dialectics is concerned with the thinking or behaviors associated with opposing forces. The most common application of dialectics in mental health is Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT. In DBT, the therapist will take great care in understanding the individual's story and emotions while simultaneously finding points in the discussion to encourage behaviors to improve the patient's situation.
In the context of climate-related anxieties and grief, it's possible that DBT would have a benefit for those unsure of whether to feel pessimistic and downcast about the future and those desperate to take action. However, it's essential to recognize that professionally administered DBT is often a multi-week process with a skilled clinician.
For those concerned about the climate crisis but are struggling to decide whether despair or optimism is the correct feeling, it's both. Your anger, defeat, and sense of loss are valid and must be acknowledged, but leave room between them for meaningful actions that will create hope and change for our collective futures.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone. To receive regular ideas and analyses on carbon removal and the new carbon economy, please subscribe below. If you enjoyed this post, please share it with friends. And if you’d like to get in touch, you can find Omar Sadoon on LinkedIn.
A big thanks to Omar and his willingness to share his story and if you want to see the article in its entirety, please visit: https://carboncurve.substack.com/p/eco-anxiety?r=1m0rxn&s=r&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
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