Jon Reeves first realized that treating climate anxiety would become a regular part of his job in 2016. He was then working in Massachusetts as a student counselor at Boston College, and the country was about to elect noted climate-change denier Donald Trump to the highest office in the land.
“I definitely noticed that students were bringing climate change up as part of their overall concerns,” Reeves, a psychologist, told Yahoo News. “I think there was some stress that came along with the presidential election and concerns that the U.S. government wouldn’t do as much to mitigate climate change with Trump in office.”
Sure enough, Trump made a point of avoiding using the term “climate change” while in office. He also rolled back many of his predecessor's executive actions designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, the goal of which was to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels.
Two years after Trump was sworn in, Reeves moved to Seattle, where he set up his own therapy practice, but he quickly found that climate anxiety among young people had, if anything, only gotten worse.
“It’s something that hadn’t started out as a focus, but it’s becoming more of one,” Reeves said. “Patients are just bringing it in naturally. Certainly on the West Coast, it’s on people's minds, with the heat waves and flooding and especially the wildfires.”
Across the Pacific Northwest, climate change pulled no punches in 2021, including June’s record-shattering heat wave, which sent temperatures to 118°F in parts of Oregon and 108°F in Seattle. Oregon and Washington reported 194 deaths due to the heat wave, while the Coroners Service in British Columbia, Canada, said high temperatures had resulted in 569 deaths. More than a billion sea creatures were also killed thanks to the suffocating heat, and a study conducted by scientists at World Weather Attribution concluded that the magnitude of the heat dome was “virtually impossible” without climate change.
And Reeves’s patients suffered through it.
“With the heat dome, I noticed that people struggled to sleep because a lot of homes don’t have air conditioning, and heat tends to exacerbate suicidality, anger and aggression,” Reeves said. “So folks were on edge and making mistakes at work because they’re not getting sleep. Everything felt a bit more tense the week it was really hot."
Kristi White, a clinical health psychologist in Minneapolis, also treats many young adults for issues that stem from the changing climate.
“Some of the things in the patients that I work with are things like asthma exacerbation due to poor air quality from wildfires [and] concerns around the risk for heat-related illnesses during extreme heat waves,” White said. “In addition to helping people deal with the stress of the environmental uncertainty, I’m also helping people adapt their care plans so that they can keep themselves safe during these climate-related events.”
In a 2020 op-ed published in Ensia, a journal produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, White sounded the alarm to therapists that climate change had become a “disease of despair.”
“Young people come into therapy and tell me they are scared about what climate change means for their future. They tell me they entertain their suicidal thoughts because they’ve concluded their existence is unjustifiable in a climate-changed world,” she wrote. “They tell me that they are struggling with grief at the loss of some of their favorite childhood activities due to habitat destruction and rising temperatures. They tell me they don’t know what to do.”
A growing body of evidence backs White up. In December, a study conducted by researchers in the U.S., the U.K. and Finland surveyed 100,000 people ages 16 to 25 in 10 countries on their feelings about global warming. Sixty percent described themselves as “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change, while more than 45 percent said their views on climate change negatively affected their daily lives.
Given that the consensus among scientists is that climate change will almost certainly worsen unless decisive, unified action is taken by the world’s governments to curb greenhouse gas emissions, anxiety about the future is not unwarranted. That puts therapists like White in a somewhat difficult position.
“Whenever we think about stress or anxiety, it’s on a spectrum. There is a certain amount of stress and anxiety that’s normal, universal, just part of being a human,” she said. “And we don’t want people well adjusted to toxic systems or systems that are eroding or are causing problems to our health, so having a distress response to a toxic system or to a process that is undermining public health is appropriate.”
In 2017, the American Psychological Association released a guide for therapists detailing the growing need to address climate anxiety. It noted that climate change was already leading to “major chronic mental health impacts” including “higher rates of aggression and violence, more mental health emergencies, an increased sense of helplessness, hopelessness or fatalism, and intense feelings of loss.”
The guide also laid out recommendations for psychologists who are treating patients for climate anxiety, including building “belief in one’s own resilience,” fostering optimism and “practices that help to provide a sense of meaning.”
As with all forms of anxiety, the goal of treating stress from climate change is to make sure it does not rise to a level that interferes with living a happy and productive life, White said.
“When it starts to creep into becoming impairing, it becomes debilitating or people give in to despair or aren’t able to continue to function in a way that gives their life meaning and purpose. That’s when we start to become concerned that it’s something that warrants a mental health diagnosis,” she said. “But eco-anxiety or climate-related stress is not a mental health diagnosis, nor do I think it should be.”
Placing a therapeutic emphasis on climate change can help clarify “what someone is truly anxious about and what they are feeling distress about and what they can do about it,” Reeves said, adding that it’s important for some patients to come up with “some actual ways to meaningfully contribute and be connected to a community and act with some agency, rather than feel overwhelmed by this vague sense that something bad is happening.”
For 19-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose youth organization Fridays for Future has led school climate strikes in more than 150 countries and mobilized hundreds of thousands of students to demand political action on climate change, climate anxiety is “a quite natural response” to the problem.
Young people can help alleviate that stress by getting involved in protest movements, Thunberg told Reuters in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Scotland this past fall, where she led massive demonstrations.
“When you take action, you also get a sense of meaning that something is happening. If you want to get rid of that anxiety, you can take action against it,” she said.
On Dec. 30, Boulder, Colo., became the latest U.S. city to confront the impact of climate change. Wind gusts of over 100 miles per hour whipped the slopes of the Rocky Mountain foothills that day, and with bone-dry conditions from the extreme drought gripping much of the West and almost no snow to speak of, the perfect conditions for a wildfire had been put in place.
When the Marshall Fire did erupt that day in Boulder County, it advanced at a frightening but now familiar pace of a football field per second, just as had been the case in Paradise, Calf., during the Camp Fire of 2018. Destroying more than 1,000 homes and knocking out power for 50,000 people, the Marshall Fire and the winds that drove it racked up over $1 billion in insurance losses, the 14th consecutive year that extreme weather accounted for damages of that magnitude in Colorado.
“It’s personal. It’s front and center [in Colorado],” Devon Herndon, a therapist in the tiny mountain town of Cotopaxi, two and a half hours south of Denver, told Yahoo News.
Having practiced in the state for the past five years, Herndon said the amount of time she spends treating climate anxiety has been growing in recent years. While the population of Cotopaxi is just 47, Herndon says she currently has three young adult clients who are “expressing full-blown anxiety over the climate crisis.”
While some of that anxiety may be born of the fact that climate change has exploded as a media topic, sometimes saturating conversations on social media, it’s also a result of local conditions, Herndon said.
“Our forests are dead and dying rapidly. It’s no longer getting cold enough to kill the parasitic bugs in our pine trees,” she said. “Then we have a whole bunch of standing dead [trees] that are giving fuel to the wildfires.”
Nonprofit groups like the Climate Psychological Alliance help educate therapists on treating people with climate anxiety and provide patients with a database of professionals who specialize in that field. Herndon said that while she has had to read up on the science of climate change, finding the right balance on how to impart what she has learned depends on the patient.
“I’m paying attention to the science, so that if I have a client coming at me with things out of left field, I can gently redirect,” she said. “At the same time, I have to be cognizant and aware of my client’s personal biases.”
For all the therapists who spoke to Yahoo News for this article, the belief was that as the climate crisis continues to worsen, treating the anxiety that follows from it will continue to represent a bigger portion of their caseload — especially for younger patients.
“My sense is we didn’t evolve to carry the burdens of the globe,” Reeves said. “We have cognitive tools to deal with our tribe and our small community, so for a teenager who is concerned for the world, it can be really overwhelming.”
White concurred. “There are generations that have benefited from a sort of certainty, that have been able to plan ahead for their future and what to expect over the course of their lifetime,” she said, “whereas folks who are younger are really experiencing a lot of uncertainty around how they might plan for their future: whether they’ll have a family, what their career might look like, those sorts of things.”
Given that range of questions and fears, it can be tempting for some people to simply shut down, White said, and that’s where therapy can help.
“Generally speaking, avoidance exacerbates the anxiety, so I spend a lot of time helping empower and equip people with the tools that they need to develop emotional courage, emotional agility and the skills for being able to face their fears,” she said.