Typhoons were normal in climate justice activist Tori Tsui’s childhood. Growing up in a fishing town in Hong Kong, Tsui was no stranger to tropical storms that would rip through her city and community. Climate change consumed her thoughts from a young age.
“I remember so many sleepless nights,” said Tsui, author of an upcoming book on eco-anxiety titled It’s Not Just You. “It was a very visceral, very physical feeling that led to a lot of turbulence in my early years.”
Tsui struggled to find help. When she finally did, mental health professionals failed to grasp what was making her unwell. “So much of what I was labeled was stripped of any political understanding,” she said.
As Tsui grew older, she realized her feelings had a name: eco-distress.
Eco-distress is a term mental health professionals use to describe the wide range of emotions people feel about the climate crisis—from grief to anxiety to rage. It can be brought on after living through a traumatic climate disaster but can also emerge when an individual becomes overwhelmed by the existential threat of climate change. Nowadays, that threat has become undeniable. Just look at the recent floods in California or the warm winter in New York. How can a person not feel overwhelmed?
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledged for the first time that climate change is impacting people’s mental health. The IPCC validated what more than two-thirds of American adults had already reported in 2020. Research published earlier this month also found that survivors of California’s deadliest wildfire—the Camp Fire of 2018—were left with severe trauma that caused their brains to suffer cognitive deficits and altered activity—impacts that inhibit a person’s memory and information processing. Yet mental health services across the world are struggling to keep up.
This is the gap the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) is trying to fill. Founded in the U.K., the CPA provides training to therapists, psychiatrists, and social workers to help them identify and address the emotional impacts of climate change on their patients. It aims to equip mental health professionals with climate-aware practices so that fewer people’s eco-distress goes undiagnosed and unaddressed.
In fact, the CPA is trying to rethink the discipline of psychology entirely. Historically, the field has insisted that politics should be left out of the consulting room. The CPA calls on practitioners to do the opposite. The group asserts that social, economic, political, and environmental events inevitably shape our psychology. That the onslaught of extreme weather events and depressing climate forecasts affects how we feel when we get out of bed in the morning. That eco-distress is often a natural response to unnatural circumstances.
At its core, the alliance believes that the personal is political. And that healing individual eco-distress requires inviting politics into the consulting room.
‘A Different Model of Thinking’
In 2011, a dozen mental health professionals working in the U.K. convened in London for the first open meeting of the CPA.
At the time, early research had established that nature could provide psychological benefits. But the CPA members gathered to flip the question: how does the destruction of nature impact our mental health?
The CPA has spent the better half of the past decade trying to answer this question. The alliance has since grown—from 12 members to 500. It expanded into the U.S. in 2017 with many members starting smaller chapters in other countries, such as Portugal, Japan, and Denmark.
The CPA has been busy educating therapists in climate-aware practices by providing training and workshops on how climate change triggers emotions, how it intersects with other systemic issues like racism or sexism, as well as what coping mechanisms exist for dealing with eco-distress. The training highlights how feelings of powerlessness and loss that emerge can be particularly triggering for people with past trauma.
But as the CPA develops its eco-distress training, its members are struggling with the limits of mainstream psychology, which they feel is ill-equipped to handle the problem. The CPA is asking those in the field to reframe their understanding of mental health entirely.
Historically, psychology has been hesitant to link individual wellness to structural societal issues. For decades, feminist scholars and critical race theorists have criticized this, arguing that in failing to acknowledge systemic issues, psychoanalysis reproduces many of the inequities within our society.
Studies have found that marginalized people often get diagnosed at higher rates with mental health issues, like schizophrenia or PTSD. Scholars argue this is because marginalized peoples’ struggles with systemic issues get pathologized: patients are told they are the ones who are sick, not the system. This form of therapy not only fails to tackle the root cause of people’s distress; it also encourages patients to believe it is their emotional disposition that needs changing, not the world around them.
“We’re trying to train therapists in a different model of thinking, one that is much more culturally and historically informed.”
This vision of mental health is precisely what the CPA wants to dismantle. The CPA is building on the work of feminist and critical race theorists by saying that culture, politics, economics, and the environment are embedded into the way an individual feels.
Much like issues of race or gender have been historically ignored by psychotherapy, so too has the environment. Since at least 1955, scholars have warned that neglecting the environmental dimension of people’s lives would be the major downfall of cognitive psychology. Today’s mental health professionals have inherited a field that lacks sufficient research and training on how the environment affects people. Luckily for them, the CPA now exists.
“We’re trying to train therapists in a different model of thinking,” said Barbara Easterlin, a steering committee member of the CPA for North America, “one that is much more culturally and historically informed.”
The CPA does recognize that eco-distress can become a mental health problem when people become stuck in grief, anxiety, or rage. “If it’s causing us to quit our jobs, not communicate with other people, not take care of our bodies, lose our housing, that’s problematic from a functional standpoint,” said Andrew Bryant, a Seattle-based counselor and therapist specialized in eco-distress who manages Climate & Mind, a resource hub on the topic.
But the alliance cautions against over-diagnosing and pathologizing eco-distress. The CPA is mindful that the climate crisis inflicts greater emotional consequences on marginalized people. Research has found that people of color in the U.S. are more likely to be concerned about climate change than white Americans because they are often more exposed and vulnerable to extreme weather events. The CPA does not want to reproduce the historic errors of the field by over-pathologizing frontline communities instead of focusing on how broken our environmental and political paradigms remain.
“Eco-anxiety may just be the surface-level analysis of what is ultimately a fractured relationship between people and planet,” Tsui said. “I appreciate that CPA frames eco-distress as a natural response to this issue and that we need systematic changes to deal with mental health.”
‘A Problem Shared Is a Problem Halved’
When Tsui joined the climate movement, she not only discovered the concept of eco-distress—she also found ways to cope with it. She’s managed her feelings by participating in the youth climate movement and writing about eco-anxiety.
“My emotional resilience has developed over time,” she said.
Research has found that working toward solutions alleviates anxiety. That’s why many CPA members encourage their patients to take climate action. “My personal goal is to move people into activism,” Easterlin said. While she is not prescriptive about what her patients should do, even the smallest actions, such as volunteering or using less plastic, can alleviate symptoms. “It’s helpful for mental health.”
But individuals can’t find solutions in a vacuum. They need community.
This is the central tension CPA faces: it is encouraging people to think about larger systemic issues within an individualistic psychoanalytic structure.
“I don’t think anyone in our organization is under the belief that the individual therapy model is sufficient to the issues we face,” said Rebecca Weston, the co-president of the CPA for North America. “We are limited by the mental health infrastructure we live in.”
Bryant, a therapist, agreed. “[Individual therapy] is a gateway entry point for people who are alone, but it’s not the destination,” he said. “If they can find a climate-aware therapist, they can move to the next step, which is connecting with community.”
“We are limited by the mental health infrastructure we live in.”
Research has found that belonging to a group of like-minded people may be effective at tackling eco-distress. The CPA has already begun experimenting with other models. The organization has trained 200 people in the United Kingdom to run what they call Climate Cafes, where people struggling with eco-distress can participate in group support free of charge. The alliance also hosts separate circles focused on young people and parents who are looking to help their kids manage their distress. Journalists and activists may also receive free counseling through the alliance.
“A problem shared is a problem halved,” Tsui said.
Around the world, people are finding new ways to share these feelings. In 2019, Iceland held a funeral for the first glacier it lost to climate change. The Good Grief Network, a U.S. nonprofit that organizes online peer-to-peer support sessions, has been bringing people together to metabolize collective climate grief since 2016. The organization Climate Awakening organizes thousands of virtual small-group conversations about the emotional toll of climate change.
The CPA argues this is what we need more of—opportunities to connect, to mourn, to imagine alternatives, collectively.
“It’s not just about people living in isolation coming together occasionally for therapy,” said Judith Anderson, the chair of the CPA in the U.K. “It’s about people coming together, building community so that they together are involved in change.”
The field of psychology is quickly evolving, changing as quickly as our planet. Ahead lies more questions than answers. We do not yet know how eco-distress might look across cultures and identities. How environmental trauma might inscribe itself in the body. We will need to learn how to help a wildfire survivor who has a panic attack each time they smell smoke. How to comfort a child unable to sleep at night for fear of what their future holds.
These challenges are as difficult as they are numerous—but perhaps the real challenge lies in our crisis of disconnection. A crisis that has kept us separate from each other and from the land that sustains us. Only by rebuilding these ties, might we find healing.
February 1, 2023 11:11 am
The story previously described the CPA's Climate Cafes as "group therapy" when they are more accurately "group support" as the cafes can be run by CPA-trained non-clinicians.