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​​How to address the looming crisis of climate anxiety

​​How to address the looming crisis of climate anxiety

Matt Wilson


  • Julie Grant/The Allegheny Front


 This story is part a collaboration between Environmental Health NewsAnd The Allegheny Front for a series called “Pollution’s mental toll: How air, water and climate change shape our mental health,” with funds from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

Climate change is more likely to affect mental well-being than people are aware of. Some mental health experts have begun to prepare for the tsunami of needs that leaders expect in the next few years. 

A small group from Pittsburgh high school students set up chairs on the patio of Phipps Conservatory Botanical Gardens in a circle for a monthly climate action session. Communitopia.  

Each student expressed their own reasons for getting involved, like Claire Bertolet, a 9th grader at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, “I’m afraid life is not going to be like it is today, and we’re not going to be living as comfortably,” she said. “In the future it’s going to be too late and we’re not going to have time to act on it.”

Some expressed concern about social and environmental justice, while others were concerned about the impact of large corporations upon the climate. 

Malcolm Kurtz, a junior at Allderdice, is an avid hiker as well as bird watcher. “I am really concerned with how species are affected by climate change,” he said. Kurtz finds meaning through climate work, while Ava DiGiacomo believes in it.,A sophomore at North Allegheny high school said that sometimes the state of the universe makes it feel helpless. 

“This summer I started spending a lot more time outside, and there were moments when I would just sit and think, ‘This world is so beautiful, and it’s slowly getting ruined,’” she said. “And sometimes it feels like, personally, I can’t do anything that’s really going to make a big change. And that’s not that’s not an easy feeling to deal with.”

But they are creating community around climate action, so they don’t have to do it alone. Some of the participants had just attended a previous event when they gathered in October. climate marchThe group had organized a bicycling race called Pedal-Topia

Rebecca Carter, a junior at Pittsburgh CAPA 6- 12, appreciates the community they have created. Things like Pedal-Topia, where we can get together and do something in nature as a group of activists can be really helpful and cathartic,” she said.

Climate-aware therapists are in great demand

Dr. Elizabeth Haase, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s climate change committeeThese students are on the right path, says Haase. Feelings of anxiety, grief and longing for what’s been lost in the environment, and worry about what will happen in the future with climate change, are all becoming more pervasive, according to Haase.

She’s among a growing group of mental health professionals pushing for more climate awareness among counselors. Haase is also a member of the steering committee. Climate Psychiatry Alliance, which is on the rise. “I think in five years we’ve gone from being a band of seven to eight people to 240 members,” she said. The group has a directoryof climate-aware mental healthcare professionals. 

According to Haase treating climate anxiety is not the exact same as treating clinical anxiety disorders. “It’s a different animal, a different response when you’re facing a real world problem,” she said.

She likens it as treating someone with severe claustrophobia. She would encourage them to confront their fears and spend time in enclosed spaces such as a subway car.

“That is not an appropriate response when the subway car is on fire, right?” Haase asked. “The subway is on fire. You don’t want to sit there and let your fear wash over you. You want to start doing stuff.” 

When her patients express concerns about natural disasters, climate change and ecological collapse, she advises them to find ways to talk with their family and friends about it and also to take action – join a climate group, write to their local congressperson, or pack up photographs and important belongings in an emergency backpack. 

Even just doing something like that gives you a greater sense of control, and it creates a safer space for you to be in when something bad is happening,” Haase said.

A call for therapists who want to train others

Dr. Gary Belkin Former deputy health commissioner for New York City and founder of The Billion Minds InstituteThe social aspects of climate change are addressed by the, The mental health community should take action immediately. 

He already sees more mental health needsThere are more therapists than there are patients. climate change – the heat, droughts and wildfires, and general background stress it causes – is going to make that worse.

We really have to get good at rethinking how we can reach a ton of people across that spectrum, And the only way we’re going to do that is by enlisting communities to be part of doing that,” Belkin said. 

Belkin was the leader of the effort. program in New York where mental health professionals trained  employees at child care centers, churches and programs for at-risk youth, places that he calls the front lines for mental health. 

“We skilled those staff in screening for distress and illness, for basic counseling skills,” he said. “We have to engineer things so you don’t have to look for care or support. You fall over it. And that’s really what we have to aim for.”  

Njaimeh Njie

Walter Lewis, CEO of the Homewood Children’s Village in Pittsburgh says a few years ago he wouldn’t have connected climate change with the mental health of his organization’s clients. That’s starting to change.

Pittsburgh Climate Care Initiative:

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One group at the forefront of Pittsburgh’s efforts to address climate change and mental illness is the Homewood Children’s Village. It has six advocates that stay in touch with 300 members, including more than 100 families, according to the nonprofit’s CEO, Walter Lewis.  They check in on education, economics and health, as well as mental health.

“Probably three or four years ago, it would have never dawned on me to think about some of the types of trauma and mental health impacts of climate change,” he said.  

Homewood is one example of a disaffected community. experience worse climate impactsThey are more wealthy than their richer neighbors. Lewis now sees the neighborhood’s high rates of basement flooding, and childhood asthma, as potentially climate-related. Lewis believes that even though his advocates don’t have mental health expertise, they can help raise awareness about the trauma these types of incidents can cause for their clients. 

“People are now more empathetic to knowing that, ‘Hey, we just had a heat wave, these are some things you might want to think about when you’re talking to your families or the children that you work with,’” he said. 

A new approach: community-based therapy

Njaimeh Njie

Pictured in Pittsburgh, Dr. Kenneth Thompson is accompanied by his daughter Alice Thompson. The Thompsons are bringing a Brazilian community therapy technique to America, with a pilot program starting in Pittsburgh.

Others in Pittsburgh are working to increase mental health care as a result of rising anxiety and stress about climate change.

Dr. Ken Thompson, community psychiatrist, is based at the Squirrel Hill Medical Center. He and his daughter Alice Thompson (a fourth year medical student) have been trying to bring this about. Integrated Community TherapyThrough their Visible Hands Collaborative.

Their free sessions are currently held online twice per week. 

A facilitator was trained to welcome more than a dozen people to an online session on Tuesday evening. The technique is used in Brazil for 27-years, where large groups of 200 people meet to share their experiences, learn and then deal with their problems. 

“The goals of this method are to help people learn how to express themselves and sort of have emotional literacy, how to talk about their feelings, and how to help people develop a sense of empathy with each other,” Ken Thompson explained.

Facilitators are trained over months, it doesn’t take years like mental health professionals. There are currently around 40,000 facilitators across Brazil and other countries. The Thompsons are also training facilitators in the U.S. 

“Having a safe space that’s sustained over time is going to be really helpful, especially as climate change progresses,” Alice Thompson said. “It will allow people to connect not only over their trauma, but also externally so they can support each other in other ways.”

Her father continued. It becomes a real powerful glue, and I feel like we need a lot of glue in this society…to keep us hanging together,” he said. 

In our polarized society, efforts like this are starting to help more people re-learn how to talk with others, and see their shared humanity, and hopefully reweave some of the community fabric that’s been pulled apart. Because the climate is changing, people will need each other. 




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