Bleed Greener: Eco-Anxiety or Eco-Empathy? The Climate Crisis and Mental Health

It is undeniable that the pandemic has had a severe impact upon many people’s mental health. Invariably, people are spending less time interacting with other human beings in social situations and work environments, and more time in isolation with only their thoughts for company. This has caused the worsening of pre-existing mental health issues such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, along with the rise of anxiety and loneliness amidst the general population. Furthermore, the ways in which Covid-19 has shifted the nation’s focus away from crucial, time-sensitive efforts to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis have also had a particularly negative impact upon those individuals suffering from a chronic fear of the consequences of environmental damage. In the past few years, this state of heightened concern for the future of the planet has been termed ‘eco-anxiety’.

The majority of people who experience eco-anxiety are predominantly worried about the effects that the climate crisis will have on their future, and on the futures of their children and grandchildren. When you place the available scientific data and the increasingly frequent reports of natural catastrophes next to the indifferent responses of governments and large corporations, it is difficult to maintain optimism for the future of the planet. Researchers have found that increasing numbers of young people are reluctant to have children of their own, due to their belief that it would be irresponsible to bring children into the world at such a critical junction in world history. This is just one of the impacts of widespread eco-anxiety among the younger generations.

It must be noted that eco-anxiety is not the same as clinical anxiety, although it has been known to worsen pre-existing mental health issues. In fact, the environmental campaigning community ‘Friends of the Earth’ state that eco-anxiety is ‘a healthy response to the situation we are facing’, and question whether it should be called ‘eco-empathy’ instead. From their perspective, eco-anxiety is a mature response to the climate crisis, as people who experience this concern are generally those who face up to the problems associated with climate change, rather than those who hide from the frightening reality of our present moment. Perhaps if all of the politicians and CEOs of large-scale companies experienced some degree of eco-anxiety, we would already be on track to save the planet from environmental decline. Nevertheless, eco-anxiety must be taken seriously, if not as a mental health issue in itself, then certainly as something that has the potential to cause real, long-lasting distress.

Medical News Today suggests that one of the best ways to manage eco-anxiety is to take ‘positive action’, either by living a more sustainable lifestyle, educating yourself about the best environmental practices, or doing voluntary work that benefits the environment. However, one of the defining features of eco-anxiety is a feeling of powerlessness, and an acute awareness of the fact that the scale of the problem renders individual action almost negligible. This is not to say that sustainable practices at the micro-level are not important, but rather that they cannot be expected to remedy the ongoing environmental damage caused by governments and large corporations. What may be more useful for people who suffer with eco-anxiety, is to look for positive stories in the news. There are large environmental groups challenging harmful industry practices, celebrities fighting to bring the cause to public attention, and politicians who are beginning to see the importance of facing up to the climate crisis. Sometimes, we must saturate our media intake with these stories of environmental hope for the sake of our mental health. It is this combination of selective media consumption, and sustainable actions at the micro-level, that is most effective at keeping eco-anxiety at bay. Nevertheless, if you are experiencing real mental ill-health, it is essential to contact a medical professional in order to create a plan of treatment.

If you are a student and are struggling with your mental health, you can contact the University’s Wellbeing Services here: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/wellbeing

Alice Walters

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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