In the Mountain West, we love our rivers, our mountains, our forests, deserts and wildlife. They’re part of our economies, our lifestyles and our identity. But that very connection makes us vulnerable to a growing mental health problem -- climate anxiety.
Wander around any town center or school campus around here and ask people their feelings about climate change and you might hear the words “scared,” “worried,” “dread,” or “grief.”
Things just got even scarier with the United Nations’ latest report on climate change. It said the world had already reached a 1 degree Celsius increase above pre-industrial averages and that, “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
This news alone is enough to make anyone anxious. And groups like the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association are paying attention. They’re publishing reports on how the fear of climate change can harm mental health.
Sabrina Helm wanted to find out who among us is the most vulnerable. She’s a researcher at the University of Arizona.
She did a survey of several hundred people and found that, “people who have a concern about nature and the environment in general, plants and animals, those are the ones who also report highest ecological stress. Unfortunately, also depression,” she said.
Helm believes people in the deserts of the West are especially sensitive because they “are very aware about how fragile the natural environment is. It doesn’t rain one year,” she said, “and the changes are tremendous.”
For Helm, who moved from Germany to the desert West some years ago, all of this hits home.
“It seems very dire to me,” she said. “If you read so much of the research, which paints not such a nice picture of future developments... It affects researchers as well.”
In fact, based on Helm’s research, people who study the environment may actually be among the most affected by climate anxiety.
That includes people like Michael Lucid, a conservation biologist in northern Idaho. A few years ago, Lucid and his wife discovered a new species of slug only to discover it was vulnerable to climate change.
He said it was disorienting to add a creature to the known world and simultaneously fear for its future. But he said climate change is part of his everyday reality as a biologist, as a parent and as a mountain dweller.
“The last two summers in August have just been horrific smoke,” said Lucid, “and that has really gotten people talking about climate change.”
He said it makes him sad, but it also motivates him to work harder to find solutions for wildlife to survive and adapt.
This positive attitude fits with Sabrina Helm’s research. Her study found that people who are the most stressed or depressed about global warming also tend to be the most proactive about finding solutions.
Laura Schmidt is a perfect example of this. She’s a recent environmental humanities graduate from the University of Utah.
Schmidt said the more she learned about the environment in graduate school, the more her anxiety increased. “And then,” she said, “I realized you have to do something.”
So she started convening support groups in Salt Lake City for people to talk about their climate anxieties. The groups became what she now calls the Good Grief Network. She said climate anxiety is something mainstream psychotherapy just hasn’t addressed head-on yet.
“Seeing the world around us come crashing down or be changed in ways we can’t even imagine,” Schmidt said, “is definitely going to have a psychological toll on us.”
So she’s growing the Good Grief network beyond Utah, and even beyond the U.S. into Canada and Europe. While developing the program, Schmidt interviewed scientists, activists, and writers about how they cope during hard times.
“Almost everybody said that they had some sort of spiritual practice,” she said. For some people, it was taking a walk in the forest.
For some people, it could be their church. Tom Trinidad is the pastor at the Faith Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs. He said he has a number of congregants who are deeply concerned about the environment.
“Some folks come to the church and they just want to be able to unburden their concerns and their hearts,” said Trinidad. “And that’s all we can do sometimes. But if you only say ‘just trust God and there's nothing you can do about it’ then that also robs them of the dignity of their human responsibility. And so we try to do a little bit of both.”
He said even Pope Francis wrote a lengthy treatise on actively dealing with climate change.
Trinidad said he believes “all of us need to be talking about this.”
For Laura Schmidt, it boils down to a simple choice. “You can see this as a great opportunity for connection and for meaning and for community building,” she said. “Or you can sort of shut down and look the other way.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.