Problematising climate “anxiety”: the inequality of mental health consequences
Taking action against climate change by protesting, striking, and so on does not eliminate or even meaningfully diminish climate anxiety for those witnessing climate impacts unfurl in real-time. That means there’s an important distinction to be made between the post-traumatic stress that people like Farzana and Disha experience and the pre-traumatic stress people like Tori – who lives in the Global North — experience. The term eco-anxiety does not include the nuance between the stress that occurs, for example, as a result of watching your home flood (like Disha has), and that which occurs as one anticipates climatic disasters that have not yet occurred. The psychological impacts of anxiety resulting from the loss of safety, habitat, and loved ones are also different from fear of a future where these conditions occur, as these current losses have already altered children’s neural pathways.
To make this distinction more concrete, during the week of April 26, 2022, parts of Northern India and Pakistan reached 46-47°C in dry bulb temperatures, with wet bulb temperatures ranging from 22-23°C. Though the fear of temperatures like this becoming the norm in Europe may trigger climate anxiety, for people living through boiling weather right now the anxiety they feel produces a different degree of trauma – people are dying coming to and from work, and schools are shutting down due to the heat.
That’s why I would argue that the research conducted, for example, by the University of Bath is incomplete – because the questions all relate to a fear of the distant future. The argument of “futures being threatened” is one Disha and Farzana both vehemently disagree with because it discounts the present reality of young people as well as the psychological damage the climate crisis is currently inflicting on people. It also homogenises trauma by making the climate anxiety experienced by those who have endured and witnessed climatic disasters in close vicinity the same as those who have not.
Nylah Burton, author of “People of Color Experience Climate Grief More Deeply Than White People” (2020), explains how “climate anxiety” as often discussed in the mainstream can be akin to white fragility. That’s because, at best, it makes the trauma Black, Indigenous, and Brown people in the Global South experience equal to white climate anxiety in the Global North. And, at its worst, it puts the climate anxiety that white people in the Global North face on a higher pedestal of emotional distress, thereby discounting the long history of colonialism, imperialism, and racism which has allowed the climate crisis to flourish.
For example, Inuit and Aboriginal youth are reporting higher rates of suicidal ideation and depression linked to the loss of nature and nature-based activities. This exposure to the natural world is not just recreational for native youth but also a pivotal part of their culture, education, and family histories.
The focus on protecting the future is an extension of individualistic culture because, according to this logic, white people and people in the Global North should focus more on what they might lose than on protecting Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples from further loss. This disparity is clearly visible in the resources and professional help being allocated to support people in the Global North with climate anxiety in contrast to the dearth of mental health support offered to climate refugees and people in the Global South dealing with panic attacks, nightmares, and fear.
Tori, an activist from the UK, shares that in her country there seems to be a push and understanding among mental health professionals that climate anxiety and those experiencing it deserve adequate resources. But the discussion needs to go further than the symptoms the climate crisis is causing because climate anxiety is not an illness of individuals but an illness of the system. It cannot be cured or treated individually until governments can guarantee a safe and liveable future for their citizens.