Diagnosing climate disorder

Climate change causes mental illness, but we lack the language to fight back.

Climate disorder is a discrete and recognisable phenomenon. It is a crisis of epic proportions. 

Our minds are as delicately balanced as any ecosystem. Think of the complex interplay of feedback loops for both our brains and ecological systems.

Think of the unimaginable number of internal and external stimuli and the inexplicable sorcery that leads to disarray or equilibrium.

If you are experiencing mental health distress you can reach out to the Samaritans or find out more information from the charity Mind.

There are half as many neurons in the human brain as there are stars in our galaxy and, as Donald Hoffman puts it, our modern understanding of the brain is essentially comparable to Galileo’s grasp of astronomy.

Disintegration

While we can, to some extent, treat the symptoms of mental illness, we are essentially in the dark when it comes to how the brain actually works.

What, in the brain, constitutes psychological wellness? We don’t know. Conversely, we know upsettingly little about what leads us down the path to mental illness.

The light-starved, wet organ, encased within our skulls, rippling with innumerable electrical signals, is like the night sky: blackness and mystery prevail.

Climate breakdown is wreaking havoc on the natural world and could push civilisation to the brink, a gargantuan, multifaceted global crisis.

There are complex and finely tuned ecological and man-made systems at risk of utter disintegration. These are established facts.

Academic

Their stability has been fundamental in the development of all living things. But there is another unbalancing that requires our attention: the interaction between global heating and mental health.

Ecological calamity is devastating our minds. One survey of 10,000 young people found climate-related anxiety and distress hampering the daily functioning of 45 percent of respondents.

Climate disorder is a discrete and recognisable phenomenon. It is a crisis of epic proportions. 

Another found that 84 percent of people think climate change will negatively affect mental health at least as much as unemployment and Covid-19.

My own poll, which received over 1,750 responses, found that climate change has been either ‘moderately’ or ‘severely’ detrimental to 79 percent of answerers’ mental health.

While some have investigated this, including the American Psychological Association and a slew of articles in a number of academic journals, we are at the very beginning of understanding this.

Anxiety

I have bipolar disorder. I also have PTSD, the long tail of a suicide attempt that happened several years ago and resulted in me losing a leg and entering a pervasive state of extreme dissociation.

After over a decade of treatment, my medical team and I are convinced that climate change played a crucial role in triggering my illness.

How? The terror, the angst, and the creation of an existential narrative of mine all pegged to saving the world; the world, I thought, would burn if I didn’t do something urgently. I am not unique.

Ecological breakdown is driving people mad. Some use the term climate anxiety to describe this. Others prefer the broader definition of eco-anxiety. There have been articles. There have been books.

Mind

But anxiety doesn’t scratch the surface. Climate change isn’t merely making people worry. Just like the fragile ecosystems being destabilised by a warming world, our minds are being tipped into fundamental disarray, crippling mental illness and sometimes death.

We need a global term to distil a global problem. I propose Climate DisorderIdentifying climate disorder refocuses our attention on the causes of mental illness, rather than symptoms.

When the cause is climate change, we must say so. This realisation forces us to travel upstream and validate peoples’ feelings and experiences as emanating from systemic catastrophe.

This plays out in two ways: climate despair and climate trauma. The first results from thinking about climate change, as a more or less abstract response that has damaging material effects on the mind.

Dynamics

The second comes from the physical impacts of climate change: natural disasters, conflict, migration, poverty, starvation.

These cause physical suffering, inevitably, but the associated trauma also has a deep and lasting effect on people’s mental health.

Studies suggest that mental health cases arising from disaster can outstrip cases of physical illness by 40-1. There is a vast literature detailing the causal links between despair and trauma and the onset of lasting mental illness.

This article is the first in a two-part feature outlining these dynamics. The rest of this piece deals with climate despair. The second will tackle climate trauma.

It’s all in your head

Climate despair is worse than simply ‘feeling bad’ because of climate change. It can be an exaggerated and paralysing empathetic response, a self-destructive guilt, or an existential and all-pervading fear about the future.

Studies show that being told about upcoming pain can drive people mad, especially when there’s uncertainty about when it’s going to happen.

Our lack of agency compounds this. We’re forced to experience ourselves as prisoners in a system where we have little to no control, like hostages awaiting indiscriminate violence.

Mental illness is often primed by genetics, these latent conditions made manifest by context and experience. High levels of stress can lead to anxiety disorders. Lack of sleep and drug use can trigger mania. Sexual abuse can cause PTSD, dissociation and hallucinations.

Nature

The way we understand reality and our sense of meaning and purpose can have similarly outsized effects on our minds.

Apocalyptic visions of the future, for instance, or a belief that things are relentlessly getting worse, can force people into states of panic, anxiety, depression, or even psychosis.

Research shows that people who care more about nature are more likely to be anxious and depressed, and that the causes are distinctly related to the destruction of the biosphere.

One sufferer I spoke to explained this in detail: “I tend to be very resilient […] but ever since I found out the true magnitude of exactly how ****** we currently are vis à vis climate change [my mental health] has taken a huge beating. [My] thoughts get very bad and everything seems pointless."

Escapist

In a similar, but more psychologically escapist, vein in 2009 one 17-year-old Australian boy was diagnosed with the world’s first case of ‘climate change delusion’. He was refusing to drink water, convinced that if he did so millions of people would die.

Climate despair also leads to suicide. In 2018, David Buckel, a retired LGBT rights lawyer self-immolated to protest inaction on climate change.

Poetically, he used fossil fuels as the accelerant. Buckel left a note for the first responders: “I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide… I apologize to you for the mess.”

A BBC article recently argued that, “worrying about climate change is a reasonable and healthy response.”

It claimed, quoting professor Caroline Hickman of the University of Bath that climate anxiety, climate depression and climate rage are not pathologies. “I’d kind of wonder why somebody wasn’t feeling anxious,” Hickman said.

Suffering

Of course, there are healthy emotional responses to impending doom: like fight or flight, sadness, grief and fear. These can be useful adaptations to crisis and help us to reorient ourselves, as well as spur us to act.

But climate disorder is about the severity and detail of the ways our situation can lead to the radical deterioration of our mental states. This is not a “healthy response”.

In Living in the Borderland, Jerome Bernstein outlines a discussion with a patient suffering from depression, isolation and despair.

The patient had seen a cattle car and was deeply disturbed that they were on their way to slaughter. Bernstein suggested it was a case of projection, that the cows represented something else to her, but she argued with him.

Trauma

“It’s the cows!” she said. Later, after encountering some stray dogs, she was similarly distressed. Again, Bernstein tried to find what was really going on?

This time, “out of character for her, she became angry – so angry that she took her shoe off and hit the floor with it. 'You just don’t get it!' she shouted, and slammed the floor again with her shoe. 'It’s the dogs!'”

Bernstein reflected, “my standard interpretations were not enough and somehow off the mark.” Sometimes, the experience of contact with nature’s demise is enough, on its own, to tip us into despair.

There is no psychoanalytic analogue, no past-trauma being forced to the surface. What is occurring, the thing we connect to directly, is the trauma itself.

Historical precedent

During the Cold War millions of people were terrified that one day, with little warning, the planet could become a radioactive wasteland. This gave rise to a litany of conditions and suicides.

Covid-19 has also had a substantial effect on our minds. An article in Nature, for instance, details that 42 percent of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic, a huge jump from just 11 percent the previous year.

But climate change is qualitatively different from the Cold War and Covid. Climate change builds with compound interest. Unlike nuclear Armageddon, it’s not an “all-or-nothing” scenario.

Predict

We are aiming for neat goals like 1.5C or 2C, but the climate system doesn’t respect such round numbers.

California is already on fire, ice sheets are collapsing, the Amazon is emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, and parts of the Middle East and China are experiencing temperatures too hot for human habitation.

We can forecast trends or patterns, but the detail is impossible to predict with any accuracy. All we know for sure is that it is set to get worse.

That is more difficult for us to manage, psychologically, than nuclear war or the pandemic. In evolutionary terms, our minds are not equipped to deal with the randomness, the uncertainty and the unequal distribution of impacts.

Alleviating despair

Climate despair is a predominantly Global North malaise. By contrast, climate trauma disproportionately affects those in the Global South, and those living there are already reporting higher levels of psychological distress: some of it climate despair, much of it climate trauma.

One interviewee told me: “The saddest thing for me is the people least responsible for the climate issues will be most affected by flooding, drought, wildfires, and food security issues… I think the industrial civilisation we have created will collapse.”

This kind of thinking will change everything. As many as 40 percent of young people are considering not having children due to the climate crisis. Others are choosing to step out of society.

One person I spoke to said: “I spend at least part of every day thinking [about the] future, how to escape, where might be safe. I know that nowhere will be safe, but I think that heading somewhere remote with a stockpile of food and drugs could perhaps see us through an initial collapse.

"I’m not quite naive enough to think we’ll live happily off the land there, but I know we need to be far away from people when the crunch comes and they realise just what their lifestyles have cost them.”

Psychological

Living with overwhelming fear is utterly destabilising and is arguably a form of PTSD - which here could stand for pre-traumatic stress disorder - causing people to detach and dissociate or enter a state of hyper-vigilance as they scan for threats and signs of imminent doom.

It would be deeply unhealthy, indeed delusional, to completely separate from the evident plight of the ecosphere. But we must recognise that there’s another level to this, driven by the cascade of intense despair and trauma that generate climate disorder.

Climate disorder is a discrete and recognisable phenomenon. It is a crisis of epic proportions, one that so far we’ve lacked the appropriate terms to discuss in a meaningful way.

We don’t know everything about the intricate dynamics of how it is that our disordered climate is driving climate disorder, but we do know enough to start defending ourselves against it.

Crucially, to echo the sentiments of eco-philosopher and radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen, the best diagnosis is the first step towards better treatment.

We must prioritise protecting the delicate equilibrium, our world, on which our psychological wellbeing depends. We must accept climate chaos as an aggressor in this context. Recognition of climate disorder is a necessary start.

This Author

Charlie Hertzog-Young is a researcher and writer working on climate, progressive politics, and mental health. He tweets at @CMaxwellYoung.

If you are experiencing mental health distress you can reach out to the Samaritans or find out more information from the charity Mind.

Donate

The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here