It doesn’t feel real…it feels like a bad dream. I’m in one reality and everyone else is in another.
“Eco-anxiety” was introduced into the lexicon of the Oxford English Dictionary in the run-up to COP-26.
This might sound like a good thing, but the OED, a global authority on the world’s predominant language, defined the phenomena as “unease or apprehension” caused by ecological issues.
Such a euphemistic description of deep and fatal mental health issues resulting from climate breakdown is not only disrespectful, but also counterproductive.
If we’re going to address the very real, very dangerous diseases of ecology and mind we first need to bring them into the light.
In the introductory article in this series I proposed the term climate disorder as a broad umbrella for mental illness with climate chaos at its core.
In conversation with clinicians, activists and sufferers, I’m suggesting climate disorder be subdivided into two categories, knowing that both have many nuanced branches emanating from them.
The previous article focused on the first of these two Climate Despair: mental health conditions derived from thinking about climate change and our relationship to the crisis.
It doesn’t feel real…it feels like a bad dream. I’m in one reality and everyone else is in another.
This piece is about the second: Climate Trauma, mental ill-health caused by the physical impacts of climate chaos.
An alarmingly unjust burden of climate-induced suffering is concentrated in the global south.
This is often thought of in terms of immediate injury, hunger, loss of property or homes, forced migration and death, the tragic effects of hurricanes and rising sea-levels, crop failure, and conflict precipitated by nations competing over scarce resources.
Rarely, however, is sufficient weight given to the crippling and long-lasting psychological distress these many forms of violence cause.
Some research even suggests that natural disasters lead to 40 times more cases of psychological trauma than physical injury. Natural disasters can’t all be attributed to human-induced climate change.
However, Dr Elaine Flores, a research fellow in planetary health at the Centre for Global Mental Health, told me: “In the past nine years, 84 percent of all recorded disasters globally were related to climate issues [and] some of us will be much better equipped than others to weather the storm.”
Countries in the global south, Dr Flores highlighted, have “higher vulnerabilities for ill-mental health".
Trauma can be a trigger for underlying conditions we’re already ‘primed’ for by lived experience, biology or social context, but it can also be a primary cause of illness in and of itself.
As psychiatrist and author Bessel van der Kolk MD put it in The Body Keeps the Score: “Traumatised people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.”
It’s hard to imagine what could be more traumatic than near-death experiences, the decimation of your community, home and livelihood, let alone the loss of loved ones, forced migration, or being caught in the crossfire of conflict. Climate breakdown is driving an uptick in all of these.
Van der Kolk argues that “being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health.” It’s difficult to know how to “feel safe” when everything you know and love is being torn to shreds.
The science around climate trauma is all relatively fresh, but there are reams of papers accumulating week-by-week as researchers scramble to keep up with emerging phenomena.
Natural disasters of all kinds can make people psychologically ill. It’s been found that storms and flooding can increase the risk of depression by 50 percent.
Heatwaves, let alone the extreme record-breaking temperatures we saw in places like China and Canada earlier this year, have also been causally linked to increases in mood disorders.
Statistical analysis suggests that those directly exposed to forest fires have around 75 percent more severe symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder and 50 percent worse anxiety than those not subjected to the flames.
Sea-level rise is also having a major impact on the minds and lives of those most affected.
In the Solomon Islands, 95 percent of respondents said they thought rising sea-levels could lead to mental health effects, with 100 percent saying their worry about the issue changed the way they thought about and acted toward their families and communities.
At the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 I was talking to Kiribati’s then President Anote Tong about the negotiations.
His country is on the intersection of the equator and international date line and is likely to be one of the first nations swallowed by the waves. He told me: “It doesn’t feel real…it feels like a bad dream. I’m in one reality and everyone else is in another.”
I haven’t yet heard a better description of the ways the brain can choose to dislocate from the ‘real’ world when affected by severe trauma.
Research suggests that climate breakdown could also increase armed conflict by 10-20 percent for every half degree of warming, potentially meaning that such violence could, in extreme scenarios, double by 2100.
It’s long been established that war breeds serious mental illness, for both combatants and civilians. PTSD, for instance, was introduced as a term as a result of the Vietnam War.
Rising temperatures are likely to trigger other kinds of violence, too, some of which can refract into psychiatric conditions later in life.
Higher temperatures have been found to lead to more violent crime, particularly crimes “committed at home and against victims the perpetrator is familiar with.”
Another study found that the most deprived 20 percent of residents were likely to “experience over half of the climate change-related increase in cases of violence.”
Police are also significantly more likely to be aggressive when the mercury rises, potential offenders negatively and let tension rise, putting people in danger.
Our disordered climate and resulting disasters, both social and ‘natural’, are already forcing people from their homes.
In 2020 alone, 98 percent of the more than 30 million displaced people across the globe moved due to weather-related hazards.
Refugees and asylum seekers are five times more likely to need mental health support than the general population, while being less likely to get the help they need.
Ignoring the mental health of those already suffering the effects climate change erases the lived experience of some of the world’s most vulnerable. It means a huge portion of their trauma is unacknowledged.
Harpreet Kaur Paul, a human rights lawyer and organiser, put it to me this way: “We can't underestimate the mental health impacts of not knowing if family members will be found following storms, flooding, river erosion and more, or from the howling winds that shatter homes - particularly those lovingly made in informal shelters by those least responsible for the emissions driving increasingly severe and regular storms.”
These experiences, while deeply known and felt by those at the sharp end of the climate crisis, are barely on the radar of mainstream responses.
Three quarters of suicides occur in the global south - and rising temperatures are only making things worse.
In India alone, large-scale quantitative evidence suggests that climate breakdown is already responsible for approximately 60,000 suicides.
The same research said a 1oC temperature rise during the growing season causes roughly 70 additional suicides a day.
In the USA and Mexico, rising temperatures could result in up to 40,000 additional deaths by suicide by 2050.
Detailed suicide statistics aren’t available globally. fewer than 100 countries collect the relevant data. But more than a million suicides across a dozen countries suggest a steady increase in risk correlating with temperature.
It should be remembered that all these numbers correspond to what’s termed ‘completed’ suicides, people’s actual deaths by their own hand, guided by the climate.
These people have loved ones whose lives will never be the same again. These numbers also don’t include suicide attempts, suicidal gestures or suicidal ideation - the intention to commit the act or intrusive thoughts about death.
Approximately seven percent of those who attempt suicide die as a result. Of those who survive, 70 percent never repeat the action, while 23 percent reattempt non-fatally. Those who survive can be scarred for life, physically and mentally.
The baseline social and economic conditions we live in have a profound effect on our minds as well, and these are set to change radically in a warming world.
Climate breakdown is likely to lead to rising global levels of poverty, with the UN Special Rapporteur warning of a looming “climate apartheid.”
An estimated 120 million more people are likely to be pushed into poverty by 2030. The UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs predicts that climate impacts will drive increased inequality, too, both within and between countries.
Poverty is a strong primer for mental illness, even if only experienced in childhood. A “deep well of data and analysis” also links inequality to psychological maladies, particularly related to where we think we fit into established social hierarchies.
We need to orient ourselves towards a more social model of mental illness, and highlight how exactly climate change feeds into all of this.
Thankfully, there are some incredible organisations approaching these issues through the systemic lens required.
The Centric Lab, for instance, is a neuroscience lab researching the crucial interrelations of nature, pollution, organising, racialisation, class, inequality and the built environment – while developing tools to tackle the root causes of ill-health.
Centric lab also hosts The Urban Health Council, a “public digital library exploring Equity, Science, and Methods for Public Health.”
I spoke to Araceli Carmago, lab director and co-founder of Centric Lab. Carmago is a neuroscientist of Turtle Island descent specialising on the biological link between health and place, who traces the trauma and associated mental illness back to the time when humans divorced themselves from the land.
The psychological make-up we have inherited, Carmago says, originated in Europe “all the way back…with feudalism. The minute [Feudalists decided] ‘we own land’, that was it,” she told me. “Colonisation then disconnected us by force.”
Our objectification and domination of each other is intimately tied to the objectification and domination of nature. Both processes require dislocation. Both processes require ‘othering’. This is where the dominant culture went wrong.
Carmago framed climate change to me as a reset, the earth’s equivalent of a fever to put itself back into equilibrium.
“Planetary systems have their own intelligence and wisdom to be able to rehabilitate and heal - for example a river can clear themself - nature is never an 'it' - from pollution. The problem is the constant taking and extraction has overwhelmed the systems.”
The Diné, she told me, see humans as a very ‘new’ intelligence, ‘babies’, an intelligence so young in comparison to the history of the earth and universe that it takes immense egotism to think we can solve it.
“All we have to do is stop capitalism and get the fuck out their way- the Planet does not need our 'saving' - the idea of saving goes back to the hero complex supremacy cultures love to cultivate.”
Simultaneously, reconnecting with nature, with each other and our land-based cultural roots is a powerful strategy not just for dealing with causes of climate change, but also for combatting climate-induced mental illness.
It’s far better than the “consumption and hedonism,” as Carmago put it, that our culture encourages us to engage in as antidotes. Doing that only worsens the underlying ailments.
Many indigenous communities have known this for a long time. It should be no surprise then that according to one paper more than 40 percent of those organisations battling environmental conflicts are Indigenous.
A lot of focus, in the UK at least, has been on Extinction Rebellion, but there are scores of other ambitious progressive groups organising in defence of the earth.
We need to grow new forms of connection to survive escalating climate chaos, mitigate its worst effects and address climate trauma – its causes and its symptoms.
Dr Flores published a research paper that showed that survivors of natural disasters had two times lower prevalence of chronic PTSD if they had high cognitive social capital. This is a technical term incorporating trust in the community, a sense of belonging, and security, among other things.
Harpreet K. Paul says we need “systems that prioritise our well-being over profit, and which allow us to have agency in collaboratively designing decentralised, green, and just futures. These are the systems that will be good for health, and planet.”
Many such systems are outlined in a recent book co-edited by Kaur Paul and published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation – freely available to read here.
There is diverse network of skilled, experienced and insightful people building alternatives to the dominant culture that is disordering the climate and our minds.
The evidence is clear and the arguments are powerful, but we don’t have the terminology, narrative framing or collaborative structures to empower those with real solutions.
To use Carmago’s phrase again, the people propelling us toward disaster need to “get the f*** out of [the] way.” Those on the front lines need to be at the wheel instead.
Charlie Hertzog Young is a researcher and writer working on climate, progressive politics, and mental health. He tweets at @CHertzogYoung. Read part one in this series: Diagnosing climate disorder