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.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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