Coping with climate COPs

The iron men statues of Antony Gormley's Another Place on Crosby beach look out towards the Burbo Bank offshore windfarm.

The climate crisis - and the inaction of world leaders - is having a very real impact on the mental health of people, young and old. (Trigger warning: suicide).

I've only been able to get well and stay well since my accident because I became an active participant in my recovery with a resilient web of relationships.

Burn-out is a real risk among climate activists. It is also a term that sums up both sides of the problem: the activists on the one hand and the actual climate hotting up on the other. 

At last November’s COP 26 climate talks I was invited by the RSA to give a speech talking about how ‘climate disorder’, as a mental health concept, is emerging from a disordered climate. 

While I was in Glasgow I also saw examples of how the collective efforts to do something about climate change can improve our mental health too. Here is an edited transcript of my speech.


I just wanted to start, given that this is about "COP26 - where do we go from here?", that I've intentionally not been really dug into the granular detail of the negotiations, because I know from experience that that's really, really bad for my mental health. 

The first COP that I went to, which was in Copenhagen, I was there as a delegate and when it ended kind of famously and catastrophically in essentially nothing, I had a breakdown. The years after that and before, I really obsessively dedicated my life to fighting climate change and it took a few more years for me to have a traumatic enough breakdown to go to a psychiatric hospital and be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 

In the years since then I've been working and then episodically having to stop because of depression. And that kind of back and forth went on for quite a long time until a few years ago, when I had a suicide attempt and I jumped off a building. I spent a month in a coma and lost a leg. 

And one of the big things that I've noticed since then, other than the fact that I don't have a right leg anymore, is that before my attempt, there was a real pressure on me to think about mental illness in a very individualised way. In a very atomised way. I was made to think about it through my treatment as either being a largely genetic thing, or to do with personal behaviour choices, or a glitch in my neurochemistry that had to be fixed.

Since my attempt, I've come to understand mental illness through treatment, through research, through talking to clinicians, through speaking to other sufferers, and that actually, the modern science, the kind of cutting edge stuff, is much more about the social model of illness. 

I've only been able to get well and stay well since my accident because I became an active participant in my recovery with a resilient web of relationships.


So, mental illness being largely about how people are embedded in the world, how we see ourselves as fitting into our environment. I've realised, and have been told, that climate change - the reality of climate change in and of itself - was a huge driver of the precipitation of my illness and also the struggles that I've had since.

I know that a lot of people have been thinking about this. There's been a lot of discussion about mental health and climate change, but the terminology that's being used is just completely wrong. So, "eco-anxiety" seems to be the most popular term, and the Oxford English Dictionary introduced it into their lexicon in the run up to COP. 

While it might sound like a good thing, they chose to define it as "unease" or "apprehension" related to ecological devastation. Not only is that inaccurate, it's also euphemistic and offensive to people who have been sometimes crippled with lifelong conditions as a result of climate change. I'm talking about depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychosis, substance use disorders, you know, the list goes on and on, eating disorders, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar.

I've been writing a column for The Ecologist about all of this and I'm working on a book, and the term I've landed on is "climate disorder" because I feel like that as an umbrella term, I'm not a clinician, but as an umbrella term I feel like that that encapsulates the way the disordered climate is disordering our minds. There are two elements of that I'd like to outline briefly today.

One is despair, "climate despair", and that comes from thinking about climate change and that having material impacts on our thoughts. 45 percent of people around the world, young people around the world, have said that thinking about climate change is directly hampering their daily lives. 


I did my own survey - it was on Twitter, so it wasn't a scientific study - but almost 2,000 people replied and 79 percent said that climate change had 'moderately' or 'severely' impacted their mental health. And there are lots of cases that have been documented around the world.

I only have time really to explain one, which is the first diagnosis of climate psychosis: it was a young man in Australia who refused to drink water - it was a life-threatening condition - he was refusing to drink water because he was convinced that millions of people would die if he did. There was an article last week saying that therapists feel that they're not equipped to deal with the ailments that are arising as a result of climate change. 

The second part that I want to talk about is "climate trauma", and that's mental illness that comes from the direct experience of the physical impacts of climate change. The first bit I want to talk about is natural disasters, knitting together a few different studies: flooding and storms can increase the risk of depression by 50 percent; wildfires can increase the severity of symptoms for PTSD, anxiety and major depressive disorder by between 50 and 75 percent; heat, so just a hotter day, have been systematically linked to increased suicide risk, and already 60,000 people in India have died by suicide as a result of climate change. 

Conflict is also set to get far worse as a result of climate change. So for every half degree rise we see, we might see a 10 to 20 percent increase in armed conflict, which could result in hundreds of millions of climate refugees. And we know that asylum seekers and refugees are five times more likely to need mental health support - and are also the least likely to get it.

The key thing that I want to say is that these phenomena need to be distinctly recognised and we need to come up with solutions for them and answers for them, for dealing with the symptoms, but also making sure that they don't happen in the first place. What I can share from my personal experience is that the individual and the social lens when it comes to understanding what causes mental illness also applies to cures.


I've only been able to get well and stay well since my accident because I became an active participant in my recovery with a resilient web of relationships. So, it's a much more relational model, it's a social model of recovery. And those relationships don't just extend to my therapist or my family or my friends. I've also been extending them out into my community and reconnecting with nature, all of which scientific studies show can be really, really helpful in helping avoid the onset of mental illness, but also keeping people healthy.

The extra element of it is that I've been re-engaging in the issues and movements, again as an active participant, in issues that I really care about that can solve both climate change and mental health. 

A lot of these ideas the RSA is championing, so I'm quite proud to be on this stage. This includes a climate-related universal basic income, more direct democracy, a shorter working week, an inclusive Green New Deal, rewilding, and different models of care. And what stitches these together is including people as equals and respecting nature.

Last night, I was at a talk where somebody said that he thought that there were two COPs going on in Glasgow at the moment. One was the delegates, the negotiations, and the other was the web of relationships that was being built outside of them. 

And I heard somebody else quip afterwards that there was a kind of a good COP, bad COP dynamic, and I'm inclined to agree. The good COP, the relationship building, the networks, has given me a real sense of active hope. And I know that building resilient alternatives and relationships, regardless of what those in power do, can help. In that spirit, if anybody wants to reach out and get in touch with me and share their experiences or discuss alternatives, then please do.

This Author

Charlie Hertzog Young is a researcher and writer working on climate, progressive politics, and mental health. He tweets at @CHertzogYoung. Read part one in his series: Diagnosing climate disorder.

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

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