The Unseen Toll of a Warming World
hopeless The physical scars of our warming planet are everywhere from rising sea waters to melting glaciers and charred forests. scared cant sleep depressing grief stress and worry But climate change is also inflicting a growing, unseen toll on mental health. This is how Americans describe the stresses and strains of life on the front lines of a changing climate. panic attacks demoralizing reclaim unrecognizable Experts and psychologists are racing to understand how the torments of a volatile, unpredictable planet shape our minds and mental health. In February, highlighted the mental health effects of climate change for the first time, saying that were likely to increase in coming years. In addition to those who have lost their homes to floods and megafires, millions have endured record-breaking heat waves. The crisis also hits home in subtle, personal ways withered gardens, receding lakeshores and quiet walks without the birdsong that once accompanied them. To understand what the effects of climate change feel like in America today, we heard from hundreds of people. In cities already confronting the long-term effects of climate change, and in drought-scarred ranches and rangeland, many are trying to cope with the strains of an increasingly precarious future. The feelings are complex. Some people grieve the loss of serene hiking trails that have been engulfed by wildfire smoke while others no longer find the same joy or release from nature. Some are . Others are harnessing their anxiety by protesting for change or working to slow the damage. This is becoming a No. 1 threat to mental health, said Britt Wray, a Stanford University researcher and author of , a forthcoming book about grappling with climate distress. It can make day-to-day life incredibly hard to go on. Psychologists and therapists say the distress of a changing climate can cause fleeting anxiety for some people but trigger much darker thoughts for others. In a 2020 survey, more than half of Americans feeling anxious about the climates impact on their mental health, and more than two-thirds said they were anxious about how climate change would affect the planet. Young people say they are especially upset. A survey of people 16 to 25 in 10 countries published in The Lancet found that three-quarters were frightened of the future. More than half said humanity was doomed. Some feel betrayed by older generations and leaders. They say they feel angry but helpless as they watch people in power fail to act swiftly. Almost 40 percent of young people say they are hesitant about having children. If nature feels this unmoored today, some ask, why bring children into an even grimmer future? Some of the worst physical effects of climate change are by Black and Latino communities and who often live in places with a legacy of mining, energy drilling and other pollution. And while about the changing climate, community resources to deal with the emotional fallout may be more limited. Experts are quick to emphasize that people are justified in their emotional response. The threat is real and growing as carbon levels in the atmosphere pass dangerous new thresholds. With rising temperatures, will become more and more common. Sometimes I feel hopeless or sad or worried, said Andrew Bryant, a social worker in Seattle who treats patients with climate anxieties. Thats part of being a human being at this point if were paying attention. I lost a piece of my heart with the trees that I will never get back. Im mad, Im powerless, Im exhausted and I'm only 18. It is very difficult to proceed knowing the fires could come back, will be back. I feel confident that our family will find its heart again, but Im just not sure how or where. We ruined the world and we feel bad for the young people that are going to have to deal with this. Our subsistence resources are being threatened or moving farther away. Scary for this 68-year-old Eskimo. We havent rebuilt, since fire remains a risk, but with so much of my past erased, I can't let go of the small spot on this Earth that captured 11 happy years. Climate change hangs heavy over me as a farmer who wants to be able to pass her operation on to her children and the next generation of farmers. I worry about the future and our ability to deal with these increasingly strong storms. Our ancestral spirits live in land, sea and sky creatures that are now endangered or extinct. We also face the loss of our entire existence as an Indigenous community. A new world of drenching hurricanes and deadlier summer heat is also straining professions that once seemed removed from the front lines of climate change. Hospitals and police officers in the Pacific Northwest grappled with 500 heat deaths when temperatures shattered records last summer. Along the Gulf, emergency workers are facing down larger, more frequent storms that make their jobs even more dangerous. We want to believe that the world we live in wont change very much, said Susan Clayton, a professor at the College of Wooster and one of the first researchers to highlight climate anxiety. But the very ground under our feet, the things we take for granted, can change. I feel hopeless all the time and none of my actions seem to make any positive impact. I just want to give up. My kids are young, but they notice too. I dont know what to say to them to prevent anxiety about the world we are leaving them. We are climate change refugees. I am 68 years old and too tired to start over. What has happened to my world? Summers used to be fun. Nowadays, we cannot leave the house overnight during the months of July through October. My husband comes home tired. Sometimes he tells me he has muscle cramps, that his head aches. Just purely from the heat. I worry about it, but we dont have another option. The winter storm last February really knocked the wind out of me. If I had not sought help from my doctor and a therapist, Im not sure I would still be farming. Robins eggs just before triple-digit weather in June. Afterward, we never saw the birds again. I worry that one day my kids and the next generation may not be able to experience the joy of gardening and growing your own food. Millions of Americans now brace for seasons with a sense of heightened worry. Will children be able to play outside without smoky skies? What storms will shroud the Atlantic Coast? Will the house survive another wildfire season? The challenge going forward, therapists say, is not being overcome by those fears and sorrow. To cope and find resilience, experts say, people must now figure out ways to forge ahead individually and collectively. Researchers added that humans have one significant built-in advantage: the ability to adapt to challenging circumstances. Reporters Sarah Kerr, Noah Throop, Aidan Gardiner, Jack Healy Cinematography and video editing Noah Throop Design and development Rebecca Lieberman, Aliza Aufrichtig Research Susan Campbell Beachy, Kitty Bennett, Sheelagh McNeill Project editors Sameen Amin, Clinton Cargill, Julie Bloom Intro photographs from: Maddie Azar, Sarah Ficken, Tracey Freezia, David Hart, Kathryn Hart, Jan Konesey, Dune Lankard, Mary-Brett O'Bryan, Lindsey Rabbitt, Marta Salas-Porras, Veronica Toebbenm, Lindsay Weiler-Leon, Marily Woodhouse Additional photos in the body of the article from Paco Canales and Brianna Morgan Video Archival @i_am_mr_randolph44 via Storyful, Getty, Reuters, Jabril Portlock Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room Ten years ago, psychologists proposed that a wide range of people would suffer anxiety and grief over climate. Skepticism about that idea is gone. How to Calm Your Climate Anxiety Between wildfires, heat waves and hurricanes, were all feeling nervous about the future. But stewing or ignoring the problem wont ease your burden. Effort to Reframe Climate Change as a Health Crisis Gains Steam Research has increasingly shown that warming is taking a deadly toll on human health. At the global climate summit in Glasgow, the issue has gained new prominence.