Grief and Hope in a Changing Climate

In October of 2017, I had a panic attack as ash and smoke rained down on California’s Bay Area. Days before, winds at the rate of a car speeding down the freeway, picked up and catapulted embers from brush fires into Sonoma County. Over 1800 buildings burned and 44 people died. For many Californians and their families, panic turned to grief,  part of a pattern that continues year after year across the world, as the intensity, frequency, and damage of extreme climate events increases.

Of course, my experience isn’t unique. The climate crisis is having and will continue to have profound impacts on our mental health and well-being, starkly illustrating how historical and present day policy decisions privilege the lives, bodies, and minds of some over others. Many of us find ourselves oscillating between grief, anxiety, ambivalence, and hopelessness. In an effort to see if themes from recent survey data  and reports resonated in real life, I posted two questions on social media; “How is the climate crisis impacting your mental well-being? Are some feelings more acute than others? Why“

Three distinct threads emerged from the responses.

  • Worry and Fear:
    1. Starting families and having children knowing that the climate crisis isn’t going away and will affect future generations in ways we cannot anticipate or comprehend.
    2. Our simple pleasures or basic needs will disappear within our lifetimes.
  • Anger:
    1. Seeing the slow pace of change and, tiresome emphasis on personal responsibility in place of policy solutions.
    2. Lack of accountability from corporations, political, and business leaders.
  • Hopelessness;
    1. Feeling overwhelmed at the scope and scale of the issue.

Despite these answers, Millennials and Gen Z-ers are channeling these feelings into the fight of their lives: an urgent, radical, and necessary shift in how we approach the climate crisis and how we relate to our ecological world.  In this vein, part of my work at the Well Being Trust (WBT), an impact philanthropy that focuses on advancing the nation’s mental, social, and spiritual health, is to amplify messages and policies at the intersection of climate change, social justice, and mental health. As an organization, we understand that the very things that support adaptation and climate resilience also improve our mental health. In the spirit of co-benefits work, we’ve focused on cultivating relationships with organizations like the Trust for Public Land, the National Recreation and Park Association, and  Children and Nature Network. We are also one of the founding members of the Social Climate Leadership Group (SCLG), composed of leading mental health organizations and practitioners who also understand the profound acute and long-term impacts of climate change and climate disasters on well-being. The SCLG’s charge is to accelerate policy responses to the mental health impacts of climate change, ensuring that funding, resources and/or investments are towards frontline communities as defined in the Green New Deal.

This year, WBT will include a climate and mental health section in our biggest federal policy product, Healing the Nation (HTN). HTN is a comprehensive guide geared towards legislative staffers and mental health organizers.  The climate change and mental health section will do two things: 1) Clarify the connection between the two topics for those unfamiliar 2) Outline federal co-benefits policy recommendations that would combat acute and long-term  mental health impacts of climate change, with a focus on frontline communities.

Highlights include:

  • Increasing federal mental health and substance use agencies’ capacity to address short-term and long term mental health impacts of climate change
  • Integrating a mental health lens as part of whole-community preparedness and response planning within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • Strengthening and funding our social infrastructure and social services not limited to: health affordable, safe housing to access to good jobs/just transition
  • Increasing equitable access to green and blue spaces, while cultivating belonging and connection

This is just the start. We invite you to be part of creating and implementing climate solutions that will support the mental health and well-being of generations to come.

Lisa Herron is an Executive Fellow at the Well Being Trust. Climate for Health and the Well Being Trust are both members of the Social Climate Leadership Group.

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