Internationales Zentrum für Ethik in den Wissenschaften (IZEW)

Should psychology prescribe activism as the remedy for climate depression?

by Weronika Kałwak (Jagiellonian University)

19.10.2021 · The global climate change and associated degradation of the natural environment contribute to the deterioration of socio-economic and geopolitical affairs in numerous world regions. This means that not only are we facing a global and local rise of average temperatures, extreme heatwaves, floods, and droughts. We are also dealing with resulting bankruptcies in agriculture, mass migration and civil conflicts due to the shortage of water resources etc. Thus, the climate crisis consists of an entanglement of the facts of nature and of human affairs. This shows that human communities depend on the balance in natural environments. The imbalance, resulting from e.g. excessive anthropogenic CO2 emissions, is a threat not only to our wellbeing, but also to our health and survival. It is a challenge to mental health as well.

Thus, the climate crisis brings a call to action to mitigate environmental changes, provide sustainability and prevent further negative socio-political consequences. It is sometimes said that effective climate action must be undertaken by all possible means. One of these means (reportedly, one of the most important) is a mass mobilization of citizens to become involved in climate activism. The reason for that would be to encourage others to adapt sustainable lifestyles and to exert pressure on policy-makers responsible for making environmental-friendly decisions. This view gives rise to a trend in social and psychological studies which aim to search for the determinants of (dis)engagement in climate activism. This view is also shared by climate activists’ organizations, like Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion, whose goal is to find a way to fuel people’s involvement in climate action.

The climate crisis is also a source of a threat to health in human communities around the world, and particularly mental health turns out to be challenged in this context. For example, a systematic increase in mental ill-health symptoms is documented in the regions where people’s everyday life is already deeply affected by environmental degradation.  An example is the increase of suicidal attempts in the population of Australian farmers suffering from recurrent drought and wildfires. Climate change-related deterioration in mental health and well-being increases also in the regions that are yet relatively intact by extreme weather events and natural disasters. This is funded on psychological suffering in the face of the anticipated future environmental damage in one’s place of living and on feelings of compassion and worry about global climate catastrophe. Thus, in some individuals, the environmental concern may be a trigger for painful experiences that are frequently addressed with the labels of climate depression or eco-anxiety. Climate depression is a mental health and well-being complaint increasingly expressed in the consulting rooms of counsellors and psychotherapists and broadly discussed among the public. Simultaneously, the question “How these climate emotions should be addressed?” is being asked increasingly often by mental health professionals. Not without reason, since psychological practitioners may be dealing with a distinctively new mental health issue in this situation of degradation of human’s and other species’ Umwelt, which is a universal existential threat.

One of the ways of support offered to those who painfully experience environmental concern is to encourage involvement in climate activism. It is argued that adopting an active attitude towards the threat, feeling a sense of community provided by undertaking actions and sharing experiences with the group of similar others, as well as acting in accord with one’s own values and beliefs, may have a protective influence towards mental health and may help to cope with anxiety. What is more, in line with the concept of planetary health (the idea of first bringing health to the whole planet to finally bring health to communities and individuals), the increasing engagement in climate action may bring us closer to mitigating the climate crisis, and thus to fighting off the causes and not only the symptoms of climate depression. Adopting the concept of planetary health may need to go together with a re-evaluation of the underpinnings of psychological practice. Since traditionally, professional psychotherapy and counselling are patient-centred and funded on individualistic and anthropocentric values.

Climate activism is potentially beneficial to one’s psychological well-being through building a sense of agency. However, at the same time it is an enterprise that may be a burden, especially for a vulnerable individual. As a deeply engaging and time-consuming activity – intensive and unpaid work with often intangible results – it is known to bring risk of activist burnout. Additionally, participation in socio-political climate actions is frequently linked with the exposure to feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, to rejection, violence, and legal consequences in case of civil disobedience. Furthermore, the popularization of activism may be interpreted as a responsibilization of individual citizens to mitigate the climate crisis, while it is said to be a responsibility of global policy-makers. When those who suffer climate depression and seek for relief are prompted to get involved, the responsibility seems to be shifted to one of the most vulnerable populations in our community. Should we then, as psychologists, prescribe activism as the remedy for climate depression?

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