As global temperatures continue to rise, climate anxiety will be a growing issue for young people, therapists warn
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
“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.”
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.