Our mental health is directly related to our social position, values, and proximity to power—which all impact how we exist. Eco-anxiety, too, is influenced by our social positions and occurs after we become conscious of the climate crisis as a sense of distress in response to a rapidly changing environment. While eco-anxiety is directly caused by the impacts of the climate crisis, it can be additionally aggravated by structures of racism, casteism, sexism, ableism, socioeconomic oppression, and ageism.
To fully address that need, mental healthcare systems and practitioners are now drawing on the historically ignored knowledge of survivors, youth, frontline defenders, and those with lived climate-related experiences to understand better how to provide a fully encompassing environmental and mental health—or environ(mental)—approach that includes climate, social, and cultural justice. Several mental healthcare initiatives are approaching care by mobilizing those experiencing eco-anxiety to channel their emotions toward climate action.
While eco-anxiety is directly caused by the climate crisis, it can be additionally aggravated by structures of racism, casteism, sexism, ableism, socioeconomic oppression, and ageism.
Care for Those Caring for Our Environment
The prevalence of eco-anxiety in activism circles is under-attended and often ignored in favor of wholly investing oneself in the movement. In the process, activists risk facing burnout, eventually becoming detached from the work they care deeply about.
Mental health organizations like the Resilience Project are helping activists, youth, and frontline defenders navigate their eco-anxiety. The project aims to build psychosocial resilience within the climate justice movement by training activists in providing mental health first-aid and creating safer spaces within their local communities.
In addition, several grassroots organizations are prioritizing a care-based approach to activism. For example, foregrounds the experiences of communities of color in the environmental justice movement. It ensures that their work is built around an interconnected care and repair system.
By acknowledging eco-anxiety within the climate justice movement, these organizations make space for acceptance and awareness, which is necessary to fully understand, adapt to, and navigate the changing landscape of our world. These spaces also serve as a form of therapy.
Building Community through Eco-Anxiety
A critical role of climate psychology is to “embrace individuality [one’s unique personhood] over individualism [the cultural system that prioritizes focus on the self, rather than the community],” according to Tori Tsui, climate activist and youth advisor on the Resilience Project board. Recognizing that individuals cannot achieve climate justice or mental wellbeing alone is an essential first step.
Organizations like Force of Nature and the Climate Psychology Alliance facilitate climate cafes—spaces that involve sharing eco-anxiety with others under the guidance of trained professionals. Structuring these workshops as group experiences is intentional; these organizations understand that certain emotions are collectively felt and, thus, must be collectively addressed.
The climate cafes help to build a sense of community by enabling participants to share struggles and partake in environmental joy, translating into a community directly engaging in climate action. While supporting ecological and community wellbeing, this also strengthens individual health and wellbeing, equipping activists with emotional resilience techniques. A critical method in several climate mental health strategies involves spending time in nature, giving people the opportunity to derive joy from rebuilding the people-planet relationship and experience themselves within what they collectively try to conserve and protect.
The cafes encourage activists to do their work more mindfully and with better support systems. Alongside their climate cafes, Force of Nature provides youth with an opportunity to write and explore questions like food sustainability, sexism, media control—all within the context of climate change.
Environmental Mental Healthcare in the Global South
In many countries in the Global South, making mental healthcare truly accessible and intersectional has been a challenge. Raj Mariwala, director at the India-based Mariwala Health Initiative, says it is apparent that the progress in environ(mental) health work around the world has not been inclusive in all contexts.
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“Indigenous communities have known for generations [that] our wellbeing and mental health are tied to the health of our ecosystems. We in mental health, public health are just now waking up to this,” Mariwala says.
“Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the climate crisis has changed mental health care institutions and systems,” Mariwala says. “We are seeing the same mirroring of dominant narratives in mental health [based on Eurocentric experiences].”
Mariwala explains how this approach fails to support the global majority: “Taking a purely expert lens to climate change reduces a mental health response to either talk therapy or psychopharmacology—[but this] may not address stressors around lack of shelter, [and] lack of livelihood options after a climate event,” Mariwala explains. In short, mental healthcare ought to be informed by the lived experiences of the communities structurally excluded and most affected.
Critically, Mariwala brings attention to how poor mental health can be both a cause and a consequence of poverty, lack of access to fundamental rights, and systemic issues such as the disproportionate impact climate change has marginalized communities. Labeled Most Affected People and Areas, MAPA perspectives are often still missing from disaster management plans, climate action, and justice discourse. “Indigenous communities have known for generations [that] our wellbeing and mental health are tied to the health of our ecosystems. We in mental health, public health are just now waking up to this,” Mariwala says.
Other figures explain the exclusion of communities in environ(mental) healthcare:
- Nearly 60,000 Indian farmers and farm workers have died by suicide over the past three decades. However, this figure excludes the thousands of women who have also died but aren’t categorized as farmers due to their gender.
- Eighty percent of people living with mental illness live in low- and middle-income countries. People in disaster-prone areas face psychosocial distress, but as noted above are often left out of public, privileged discourse.
Understanding mental health in the context of climate change must be from a holistic perspective—that means looking at how gender, socioeconomics, caste, ethnicity, and access to resources all interplay.
The impact of the climate crisis on people with disabilities is also a factor continually left out. For example, in May 2020, Cyclone Amphan hit Eastern India and Bangladesh. Coverage of the cyclone included narratives of disabled women who could not use the makeshift washrooms and bathing areas due to fear of harassment and abuse from men. The lack of access to accommodations, medicines, and other basic needs contributes to added stress for people with disabilities in these situations.
Development work, social support, and nonbiomedical interventions are essential to make mental healthcare truly intersectional. Mariwala Health Initiative’s work is grounded in preventive measures instead of only crisis management. In the director’s words: “Mental health cannot be considered in isolation from other areas of development, such as education, employment, emergency responses, and human rights.”
Changing Models by Introducing Change
Organizations such as SustyVibes, a Nigeria-based environmental sustainability organization, are working to advance a justice-centered model of mental wellbeing. Their Eco-Anxiety Africa Project is a space that validates eco-emotions specific to certain geographies and cultural belonging. By providing resources, creating spaces, and featuring the voices of people experiencing eco-anxiety, the project is helping to shift the narrative of who has access to mental healthcare.
For far too long, mental healthcare has been broadly defined by Western cultures and countries, whose colonial activities have led to the standardization of healthcare. To equitably address eco-anxiety, resources must be decentralized and decolonized. This also means that mental health practitioners and support systems—particularly in the Global South—need to tailor their processes to address the unique needs of communities and people.
Mental healthcare systems and practitioners must center on environmental justice and the lived experiences of MAPA and young people must be centered. Organizations, grassroots collectives, and community spaces must embody cultures of care beyond activism and actively engage in collaborative work and rest.
True environ(mental) healthcare is about recognizing that an individual’s identity and position in the world is linked to their wellbeing: personal, communal, and ecological.