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Read This If Environmental Damage Affects Your Mental Health

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.”— Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac.”

I paused to rest on a log, damp with yesterday’s rain. I could palpably feel the trees behind me, the cooling effect they had on the air. Before me, all the trees were fallen, felled, and as I looked up and noticed the vast expanse of clear blue sky, cloudless, a sudden thought jolted me unpleasantly. Yellow-tailed black-cockatoos screamed in the remaining bushland.

Without the trees, there was too much sky.

It’s not just my imagination. Negative emotional responses to environmental damage are rising in prevalence. Terms such as “solastalgia,” “eco-anxiety” and “ecological grief” are increasingly being created to describe the feelings arising in response to experienced or anticipated ecological losses.

Solastalgia — “emplaced or existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation of a loved home environment” — was a term first introduced by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003. I clung to it when I first found it during university studies, the way it put a name to a feeling where previously there had been none. Recognition of the psychological impacts of ecological change and degradation have therefore had a name for well over 10 years, yet as an environmental activist I am still regularly meeting people who tell me they feel they are the only person who lies awake at night, feeling distress, hopelessness, depression, even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or suicidal thoughts as they contemplate the state of the natural environment.

It’s not difficult to see why these experiences are occurring more frequently if you have any interest in the environment or pay attention to the news. My social media feeds can easily become filled with bad news stories of rising temperatures, statistics on land clearance and the latest species extinction. At times, my frustration has become despair when coupled with a sense of powerlessness to change these negative trends.

In university, I majored in climate science and environmental law. My classmates and I watched the rise of the parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the declawing of environmental laws. Some days, I would find myself frozen over an essay on emissions from manufacturing plants, or of the (in)effectiveness of the Aarhus Convention, and wonder: “What’s the point?”

As an activist and a scientist, I feel the weight of my work. I feel each lost campaign I threw myself into. I feel exhausted merely mentally preparing for each new battle to be fought.

When the Conference of the Parties at Copenhagen failed to meet expectations, when the United States withdrew from the Paris Accord, when countries worldwide flooded and burned and desiccated all in the same month… I felt it.

As more and more people wrestle with the realities of environmental change, psychologists have begun to see increases in patients experiencing negative “psychoterratic” (psyche meaning “mind” and terra meaning “earth”) symptoms. It is an emerging area of psychology that mental health professionals are having to quickly become familiar with.

At the same time, I have noticed people experiencing these profoundly negative mental states are developing their own coping mechanisms, and these are being shared amongst activist circles. The following is a summary of mechanisms I have found useful in managing the enormity of the environmental issues facing us.

1. Recognizing what I can control.

I can change my own thoughts and actions. These can influence others, but I will not flick a switch and instantly change their ideas. And that’s OK. I focus on what I can do.

2. Joining with others who have similar concerns and are taking action.

Being part of an active group boosts my morale and reminds me I am not alone.

3. Educating myself.

There are hundreds of articles, both personal and academic, relating to mental health and environmental issues.

4. Looking after myself.

I take breaks from endless bad news by deliberately seeking out the good news stories. Occasionally, I see a good counselor. I meditate to regain my focus.

5. Aligning my actions with my values.

Whilst this may not be the most effective approach to solving environmental issues, it is important for mental well-being as it reduces cognitive dissonance. I have gone vegetarian, am working towards a low-waste lifestyle, take public transport, walk or cycle more frequently, and save water from washing to use on the potted vegetables I grow at home.

6. Talk it out…

… with friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances. I am always prepared for pushback, but I have also been pleasantly surprised.

7. Campaign.

Talk to the wider public or people in leadership roles. Again, I do not always receive the responses I want, yet unexpected compromises and opportunities appear that give me hope.

Before I learned these coping skills, my anxiety and fear for the environment would debilitate me. I knew I had to learn to move past it if I was to be as effective as possible in my work. Now, when anxiety and grief threaten to hold me down, I think of all the ways I can keep them in check and I keep working.

I looked down at my feet, noting the small plants still growing around them. They would be gone soon too. Pulling out a trowel, I began to dig, taking a plant here and there, harvesting seeds. You do what you can. My hands full of plants and my pockets full of seeds, I walked slowly from the bushland, across the cleared land. Soon, I would be sitting in a room with others who knew the feelings of grief and loss, but also the feelings of hope and determination in the face of environmental change.

Photo by Hean Prinsloo on Unsplash