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Energy & Environment
WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Climate Crisis Brings A New Mental Health Concern: 'Climate Anxiety'

Jones Fire wildfire in Nevada 2017
Marcus Kauffman
News about wildfires like this one in Nevada in 2017 or other effects of climate change can spark "climate anxiety."

The news is filled with headlines about climate change. And that's affecting the mental health of many. It has different names — climate anxiety, eco anxiety or even climate grief.

Ask some people about climate change and you'll hear a range of emotions

"I'm concerned for my future. I'm concerned about the future of the next generation," said Kennedy Goode, a UNC Chapel Hill student from Winston-Salem.

"It's made me worried about the earth, it's made me worried about the destruction of culture. It's made me worry about just our future in general," said UNC Charlotte student and Lumbee Tribe member Samuel Woods, from Lumberton.

Charlotte lawyer Christine Lamb said it's constantly on her mind. "I think about it every day, I usually think about it in the middle of the night. A trip to the grocery store will send me into a fit of despair and rage, because everything is wrapped in plastic," she said.

Their emotions are not unusual as the climate crisis worsens, said Susan Denny, a counselor at Davidson College.

"People are feeling fear. They're feeling anger," Denny said. "They're feeling sadness and sorrow. They're feeling helplessness, not knowing what to do."

Daily reports about wildfires, global warming and sea level rise are fueling it.

A December survey of Americans by Yale and George Mason universities found that two-thirds are worried about climate change to some degree. For some, it goes further: More than 40% said they feel "disgusted" or "helpless" about global warming. And about a quarter said they feel guilty about not doing enough, like Lamb.

"I think that's what perplexes me the most is, I'm not sure what all I should be doing, because the problem is so big," Lamb said.

The field of climate psychology hasn't been around long. The American Psychological Association has a task force studying the issue, with a report due out this fall. Academic studies are becoming more common, said the organization's chief science officer, Mitch Prinstein.

"There has been increasing research on looking at some of the mental health reactions to climate news because, of course, it's an existential threat," Prinstein said.

Probably more important are the direct effects of climate change on mental health, he said.

"Climate change news, itself, can be very depressing, and very agitating," he said. "But also, the effects of climate change are causing displacement related to natural disasters, which in and of themselves, create massive stress reactions that have a huge, obviously, mental health component."

Prinstein said children, in particular, can see lasting effects and even post-traumatic stress disorder after hurricanes or floods. Disaster-related stress reactions can emerge up to a couple of years after an incident, for both children and adults.

A few therapists across the Carolinas offer counseling for climate anxiety. But we're only beginning to see formal training. Davidson's Denny said she sees a few students whose climate worries bring them to her.

"Some anxiety, some almost trauma — like having nightmares about what might happen — and definitely not understanding why generations before them didn't do more about it," she said. "And so all of those emotions come up, and we have to process those in order to move toward action"

Action is one response among the climate anxious: Recycle more. Hound the grocery store manager about plastic packaging. Write letters to policy makers. Join a protest. Think more about your relationship to the land.

Kennedy Goode says her concerns prompted her to major in public health and to join two climate activist groups, the Energy Democracy Leadership Institute and Sunrise Movement.

"There are a lot of individual things you can do," Goode said. "But, ultimately, if we want to see the biggest amount of change, we have to do it together."

Though only a few seek help for climate anxiety, Denny believes climate change affects the mental health of many more people, to varying degrees.

"I think a lot of people are experiencing this, I think it's common, I think we need to talk about it more," she said.

Denny said the most important thing is that people need to acknowledge their feelings about climate change, not ignore them. Seeking out others who share your concerns, she said, can help create the energy for innovation and change.

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