The first thing I do every Thursday morning is hop on a video call with my therapist. Most of the time, we talk about my childhood, my heartache, or my work. As of late, however, our conversations have shifted. They’re less about me and more about the world.
It started last month when the smoke from wildfires out West arrived in New York City. Around the same time, a loud thunderstorm woke me up in the middle of the night. Lightning flashed outside my window. I was a little frightened at first, but my emotions quickly spiraled.
I began thinking of all the families who have lived through much worse with less support than I have. I thought about the labor required to sift through that trauma and pain—or to hide it altogether. I stared at my window blinds as lights beamed inside pondering over our collective trauma: losing the world as we know it, the only world we’ve ever known.
These feelings came crashing back a couple of weeks ago when I was reporting from Nicaragua and talking to Miskito Indigenous peoples about surviving Hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020. I’ve witnessed the aftermath of disasters before in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, but the timing of this trip hit different. On my third night in Nicaragua, my mom called, and I let some tears fall. “These people have lost so much,” I told her in Spanish. There’s more loss yet to come.
Welcome to The Frontline, where climate grief is on the table. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. I’ve gotten a little personal before, especially in my essay on motherhood, but mental health struggles are real. For Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, however, the struggles hit another level given the stigmas in our communities. I talk about all this with Kathleen Little Leaf, a mental health therapist who’s a descendant of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana and member of the Piegan tribe in Canada who works primarily with Indigenous communities.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. How have your own life experiences affected your approach to therapy or even why you became a therapist in the first place?
KATHLEEN LITTLE LEAF
It was definitely why I became a therapist to begin with. I was initially drawn to become an addiction counselor, and then later on, I continued my education to mental health therapy. I’ve seen addiction within our community. From a family perspective, addiction really impacted my life. My father died of his addiction. I went through family violence, foster care. I grew up within this family dynamic of addiction. Later on down the road, as a teenager, I became addicted myself.
I really take a holistic approach to healing and looking at the whole person: mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. It was not always just that one area of addiction with the people I was serving. There was almost always this other side of mental health issues. I’ve seen a lot of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Now, I am able to provide that co-occurring therapy to address both sides.
How are you seeing climate grief, in particular, manifest in the communities you serve?
It’s showing in a way of shock, being in a position of unknowing, looking to the future, asking questions like What’s going to happen? What’s our world going to look like?, worrying about our children and our grandchildren. Then, there’s that sense of helplessness, too—and the political aspect of things. Where is this coming from? We look at the systems across the country—governmental and corporations. Are they the cause of what’s happening climate wise? Some of the discussion around prophecies, which is what we’re seeing right now. That comes up with clients. So there’s worry and anticipation of what’s the outcome. COVID adds a layer of concern because families have been separating to keep each other safe. That grief also includes anger.
“You do deserve that support. We all do. We deserve that help.”
This is interesting. The climate grief that your clients are experiencing have a lot to do with their cultural values as Native peoples, the fear of prophecies unfolding, and the awareness and care for future generations, right?
Yeah. And with the prophecies, there’s always two sides: a negative and a positive. With the fear of what’s to come, the positive side is the messages. Individually, we do have to change. Individually, we need to heal and get spiritually grounded. That’s what’s going to keep you safe—to heal your hurts and become more spiritually aware.
I’m curious about the ways that climate anxiety and grief affect BIPOC communities differently than white communities. In Latine or Black communities, there’s often a stigma: You only go to therapy if you’re soft or if you’re crazy. You’re just sad, and you need to get over it. How do these stigmas and cultural barriers affect the way that we navigate our climate grief and anxiety? I wonder how many of us are even able to identify it.
Montana is very rural. There’s a misconception here that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Those I have served without being mandated are mostly female. For a lot of the males I see, there are very few and far between who access the therapy. They’re mostly mandated clients. That is definitely a hindrance here, and it is a stigma. But there’s a lot of grief within the tribal communities. You have environmental grief, but there are a lot of other types of grief that are very present. The climate grief is just one more layer of grief on top of many other types of grief and loss.
Even that mentality of help as weakness, culturally speaking, isn’t something that is part of our culture. That was something that was taught elsewhere in a more dominant society: that independence. Some of those cultural teachings have changed.
There’s a word that can characterize the unique experience related to all this environmental loss and devastation we’re seeing: solastalgia. Are you familiar with the word?
It’s sort of like “nostalgia” where you look back at the past, but you’re now looking back at something that no longer exists and with sadness.
There is that sense of nostalgia where we look at what is happening. Even with the berry picking. From year to year, it changes. I still hear from clients about that significant loss—even just in the berry picking. I hear things like that. The fires have been very significant, and now driving through, you’ll see these burnt trees. Places you couldn’t see before because the forest was so thick, you can see. Oh, I never could see over that mountain. Now, I can. And it’s sad. That sadness, that longing, and anger, too.
What I see with my own friends who aren’t white is almost a sense of denial of what’s happening. They’re unwilling to really confront this ginormous issue that we all face as a species. I realize this is likely a coping mechanism because there’s already so much going on in folks’ lives. How can BIPOC deal with this grief, especially those like myself who often feel alone with it or who don’t have access to therapy or can’t afford it? What do you tell your clients about how to deal with their grief?
Individually speaking, it’s about coping skills or mindfulness techniques. Some of those things can look like self care. Understanding the importance of self care. And what does that self care look like? This is where you’re taking a break from all the other stresses and doing something good for you, time out for you, a break for you. Maybe it’s taking a walk, using music that won’t trigger you, or sitting in a quiet space and just listening to the sounds of the room. These would be grounding techniques to get you back into the present moment. To be able to do that for yourself during the day—even if it’s two minutes to start—but to be able to bring yourself in and just be present.
You can meditate, listen to the sounds of the room, or notice the sounds of your feet touching the ground. If you’re walking through the grass, what’s the sensation? Is it warm? Are you barefoot? Is it cool? Is it neutral?
And what do you say to those individuals who might be feeling hesitant? Who may not feel their climate grief or anxiety is enough to seek mental health assistance?
That self-awareness is so important. What do my thoughts look like? If that thought of climate grief is crossing your mind and you’re noticing it, you have to be intentional. It’s taking that next step to access that help. You do deserve that support. We all do. We deserve that help. Honor your thoughts—honor you—honor your concerns. That’s okay because there are issues. Things are happening that are concerning, and they’re not the only person going through this. They need to realize that If you decide you are going to access help, it’s going to be OK.