5 Ways Communities Are Coping With Climate Anxiety
Katie Hayes, Blake Poland and Mark Hathaway
This summer, wildfires erupted in California, torrential rains flooded parts of Japan, and record-breaking temperatures led to a number of heat-related deaths around the globe. Disasters like these are augmented by climate change, and scientists say extreme weather like this will increase and worsen as climate change accelerates.
And it's impacting our mental health.
Given the scale of climate change, it makes sense that people are worried about its impacts. And worry can lead to depression, anxiety, and persistent fear. While worry can be a motivator for action, it can also have the opposite effect, leaving us feeling powerless, overwhelmed and apathetic.
As research scientists who study the interaction between ecology and human health, we're interested in the ways that climate change impacts our mental health.People can experience everything from altruism, a sense of personal growth, and strong sense of community to post-traumatic stress disorder, panic, and anxiety after a climate-related extreme weather event. While less is known about the positive mental health effects from climate change, the impacts of climate-related extreme weather on mental illness is better established. For example, one year after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, researchers found an increased prevalence of PTSD, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts and plans. Research also suggests that climate change affects pre-existing mental health conditions. One study found that climate change exacerbated obsessive-compulsive disorder, with participants expressing obsessive-compulsive tendencies over wasting water, gas, and electricity; and obsessive fears about flooding and drought.
Like the other impacts of climate change, mental health impacts disproportionately affect different groups. Researchers, like epidemiologist Anthony McMichael, have noted that climate change amplifies existing social inequities. Indigenous people, the poor, seniors, children, and people of color bear the greatest burden of a changing climate.
So what is being done to address the mental health consequences of climate change? Recent scholarship—by us and others—shows that in many places, community-based responses are facilitating recovery, hope, and action.
Here are five community-based programs that are helping people confront—and cope with—the mental health consequences of climate change.
1. REACH NOLA breaks down barriers to provide mental health care after Hurricane Katrina
REACH NOLA is a New Orleans nonprofit collaborative of community-based faith groups, academics, health practitioners, and social service providers to address the mental health recovery of those impacted by Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, REACH NOLA established the Mental Health Infrastructure and Training Project to respond to the mental health effects of the hurricane. MHIT is a mental health care capacity-building project that provides guidance on mental health care training and implementation in at-risk communities.
Research documents how MHIT emerged after the hurricane in the lower 9th ward. The neighborhood was one of the hardest hit in New Orleans and predominantly made up of low-income African Americans with little access to mental health care. Noting the mental health needs of the neighborhood and gaps in care, the president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in the lower 9th ward teamed up with other organizations and mental health clinicians to found REACH NOLA and, subsequently, the MHIT project. Because the HCNA was already a trusted resource to neighborhood residents, it was able to help mental health clinicians reach community members in need.
Here's how they did it: Before health practitioners entered the community, HCNA community leads provided residents with information and education about depression and the potential for other mental health effects related to disastrous events like the hurricane. The aim was to dispel pervasive stigmas about mental health that would keep people from accessing help. Mental health practitioners then provided treatment to residents. They also trained lower 9th ward residents to offer mental health aid, who were then employed as community health workers in their neighborhood. This opportunity provided mental health services, employment, new career opportunities, and opportunities for residents to be stewards in their neighborhood's recovery.
2. "Safe Spot" trains businesses and organizations in psychological first aid after a super flood
Bridging community institutions with mental health care providers is a common approach to providing care after a climate-related disaster. The community of High River, Alberta, was left with mental health concerns long after government money and disaster response assistance dried up. In 2013, the town experienced a super flood that displaced the entire town of 13,000 people and resulted in four deaths. According to public health surveillance research, as well as stories from residents, many townspeople reported anxiety, trouble sleeping, and post-traumatic stress disorder following the flood.
In response, the town is currently implementing a mental health initiative called Safe Spot, which trains employees of business and agencies in psychological first aid to support community well-being. An orange dot in the windows of businesses lets community members know that they have a safe space to talk about, and seek support for, their mental health from trained community members. If someone is experiencing a crisis and they need support before they are able to access formal counseling or professional services, they can seek support from a local business or agency who has been trained in psychological community care. The idea is that every door is the right door to support community mental health and well-being.
3. The Transition Town Movement provides a space for connection and environmental activism
Transition Town initiatives throughout the United States, Canada, and around the world are part of a community-driven grassroots movement to help people cope with climate change, peak oil, and ecological degradation. At the heart of the movement is inner transition work, which is based on the idea that the relationship that we have with the natural world is a direct reflection of the relationship we have with our inner landscape.
Individual community members are supported through their inner transitions by community groups. These groups provide a space for residents to talk about fears and concerns about climate change, support each other in building community resilience, and provide opportunities to explore plans to transition to a low-carbon future. According to a study on the adoption of the transition model in 10 towns in Australia, researchers found it helped individuals develop lifestyle changes to reduce carbon emissions. They also found that developing an eco-spiritual connection helped individuals—especially women—incite action on climate change.
In the U.S., Transition U.S. is building a nationwide campaign to support community resilience and emergency preparedness. Called Ready Together, the campaign aims to prepare communities for environmental disasters—like climate-augmented extreme weather—through educational materials and action-oriented toolkits. The initiative is currently being launched with plans to include podcasts, webinars, workshops, and a Ready Together handbook to prepare communities for disasters. The campaign targets physical preparedness as well as mental health needs after a disaster.
4. Transformative processes to reconnect people with themselves and their environment
In some cases, communities are supporting individuals' spiritual growth to help them cope with climate change. The Work That Reconnects is a group process for cultivating spiritual growth first developed by Joanna Macy in the U.S. and now facilitated by trained educators around the globe. It's rooted in the belief that addressing climate change and other ecological crises starts with cultivating appreciation and gratitude for the Earth. At the same time, the facilitated groups provide safe places where people can share feelings of fear, doubt, guilt, and even despair. Recognizing that we experience pain about climate change because we are connected to all life and future generations—and understanding that we are not alone in experiencing this—can empower action.
The process employs a wide variety of meditative and interactive practices, many involving the use of the imagination to stimulate creativity and cultivate empathy. In a Work That Reconnects workshop led by Mark Hathaway for undergraduate environmental studies students at the University of Toronto, one student wrote in their reflection that the approach "highlights the interconnectedness of the participants with one another, as well as with the greater world, which once again leads to an emotional connection." Another student wrote that the process built a sense of empowerment and helped them experience "the capacity to instigate change."
5. One Earth Sanga: the online community that supports spiritual growth and ecological awareness
Some community-based mental health programs also help people reckon with the inequality that's exacerbated by climate change. One Earth Sanga is an online platform that helps people respond to the climate crisis through Buddhist teachings and its EcoSattva training program. This platform was co-founded by two Buddhist environmentalists, Kristin Barker and Lou Lenard, and was created in partnership with the Insight Meditation Community in Washington state. The online platform provides a digital space to learn, reflect, and take action on climate change.
One of the teachings on this platform—and highlighted in its training program—is about confronting Whiteness and addressing privilege as a necessary part of confronting climate change. The equity training that One Earth Sanga provides can be an important reckoning for many who sympathize with people on the front lines of climate change but may not recognize the role privilege and Whiteness plays in shielding them from many of the social, emotional, physical, and mental health consequences of climate change.
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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