New Toolkit Offers Help for Climate Change Anxiety

A new toolkit provides coping strategies for people who are anxious about climate change. These strategies include volunteering, building a community, discussing emotions with others, practicing mindfulness, and seeking therapy.

The toolkit, which was developed by nursing experts at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, also offers reflection questions and a film with diverse voices for people to examine their values, emotions, and behaviors in relation to the environment.

“Many people have a hard time understanding the relationship between climate change and mental health and are experiencing high levels of stress about climate change,” Natania Abebe, a registered nurse and graduate student at UBC who developed the toolkit, told Medscape Medical News.

“Youth, in particular, appear to have higher levels of consciousness regarding climate change because they’re the ones who are going to inherit the planet,” she said. “A big part of why they have mental health issues is that they feel trapped in sociopolitical structures that they didn’t agree to and didn’t necessarily create.”

The toolkit was published online on April 20, 2022.

Empowering Agents for Change

Abebe was inspired to create the toolkit after giving guest lectures on climate change and mental health as part of UBC’s Nursing 290 course. Her faculty advisor, Raluca Radu, developed the course in 2020 to teach students about the broad impacts of climate change on communities.

As the course has grown during the past 2 years, Abebe wanted to create a coping framework and engaging film for health educators to use with students, as well as for everyday people.

The toolkit includes contributions from three Canadian climate change experts, as well as six students from different backgrounds who have taken the course.

“I wanted to center the voices of youth and empower them to think they could be agents for change,” Abebe said. “I also wanted to highlight diverse voices and take a collaborative approach because climate change is such a big problem that we have to come together to address it.”

Abebe and Radu also noticed an increase in climate anxiety in recent years because of the pandemic, worldwide food and energy shortages, and extreme weather events that hit close to home, such as wildfires and floods in British Columbia.

“With the pandemic, people have been spending more time online and thinking about our world at large,” Abebe said. “At the same time that they’re thinking about it, climate change events are happening simultaneously — not in the future, but right now.”

Economic, social, and political shifts during the past 2 years have also prompted people to question standard practices and institutions, which has created an opportunity to discuss change, Radu told Medscape Medical News.

“It’s a pivotal time to question our values ​​and highly consumerist society,” she said. “We’re at a point in time where, if we don’t take action, the planetary health will be in an irreversible state, and we won’t be able to turn back time and make changes.”

Our Psyches and Nature

The toolkit includes three main sections that feature video clips and reflective questions around eco-anxiety, eco-paralysis, and ecological grief.

In the first section, eco-anxiety is defined as a “chronic fear of environmental doom,” which could include anxiousness around the likelihood of a severe weather event due to ongoing news coverage and social media. The reflective questions prompt readers to discuss eco-anxiety in their life, work through their emotions, understand their beliefs and values, and determine how to use them to address climate change anxiety.

The second section defines eco-paralysis as the powerlessness that people may feel when they don’t believe they can do anything meaningful on an individual level to address climate change. Paralysis can look like apathy, complacency, or disengagement. The questions prompt readers to observe how paralysis may show up in their lives, explore the tension between individual versus collective responsibility, and consider ways to address their sense of helplessness about climate change.

In the third section, ecological grief centers around “experienced or anticipated ecological losses,” which could include the loss of species, ecosystems, and landscapes due to short- or long-term environmental change. The questions prompt readers to explore their feelings, beliefs, and values ​​and feel empowered to address their ecological grief over climate change.

The toolkit also includes recommendations for books, journal articles, websites, podcasts, and meditations around mental health and climate change, as well as ways to get involved with others. For instance, healthcare practitioners can register with PaRx, a program in British Columbia that allows providers to prescribe time in nature to improve a client’s health. The program is being adopted across Canada, and people with a prescription can visit local and national parks, historic sites, and marine conservation areas for free.

“This is about recognizing that there is a connection between our psyches and nature, and by talking about it, we can name what we’re feeling,” Abebe said. “We can take action not only to handle our emotions, but also to live kinder and more sustainable lifestyles.”

Future work will need to focus on population-level approaches to climate change and mental health as well, including policy and financial support to address environmental changes directly.

“We need to start thinking beyond individualized approaches and focus on how to create supportive and resilient communities to respond to climate change,” Kiffer Card, PhD, executive director of the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance and an assistant professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, told Medscape Medical News.

Card, who wasn’t involved in developing the toolkit, has researched recent trends around climate change anxiety in Canada and fielded questions from healthcare practitioners and mental health professionals who are looking for ways to help their patients.

“Communities need to be ready to stand up and respond to acute emergency disasters, and government leaders need to take this seriously,” he said. “Those who are experiencing climate anxiety now are the canaries in the coal mine for the severe weather events and consequences to come.”

The toolkit was developed with funding from the Alma Mater Society of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Abebe, Radu, and Card reported no relevant disclosures.

BC Campus Pressbooks. Published online April 20, 2022. Toolkit

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