‘Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world – unknown
Although it received very little media coverage, the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 (or COP26 as it’s also known) included a session on climate change and mental health. Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, the session brought together health practitioners, academics, politicians and community groups to consider the impact climate change is having on our mental health and well-being.
On the face of it, we might wonder why climate change has an impact on our mental health. But if we step back and think about it we can begin to understand. As Tyler Norris, Chief Executive of the Well Being Trust says ‘Climate change is one of the greatest public health threats of the 21st century and it’s vital to act now and address the negative impact on our mental health and well-being – ranging from changing environmental factors, existential concern for the future, and the disproportionate burden on communities of colour and the most vulnerable’.
The most obvious impact is the direct effect that climate change has on our lives if we are affected by floods, bush fires, extreme heat, or excessive rain for example. If we lose our home, loved ones or livelihood as a result of this, we are far more likely to suffer from depression or ongoing anxiety and stress. It has also been proven that extreme heat is linked to an increase in violent crime and suicide rates as well as an inability to sleep which directly affects mental health.
Then there is the indirect effect that climate change causes. Fear of the future for ourselves or for future generations. You may fear losing your job or your income, and with the World Bank estimating that climate change will push 100 million people into poverty in the next 10 years if urgent action isn’t taken, your fears may well be justified. It’s hard to escape the news stories of people affected by climate change, whether that is widespread famine or a local river bursting its banks and people being rescued by boat.
Finally there are the social consequences of climate change. This is where the changing nature of our climate affect livelihoods and social structures. A possible result of this is increased conflict, displacement and enforced migration.
Is eco-anxiety affecting you? Maybe, like me, you hadn’t identified it as a trigger for anxiety before but are now beginning to realise its effects, maybe even as a result of reading this post! One of the reasons it affects our mental health is because we feel we have no control. This feeling of powerlessness contributes massively to our state of mind and can cause us to feel anxious, stressed or depressed.
But are we really powerless? We might think that we alone can’t do anything but in actual fact we can. So what can we do?
First of all we need to remember that we can make a difference. Our lifestyle and the choices we make every day affect climate change. Two thirds of greenhouse gasses come from private households. Once we appreciate that, we can begin to understand why recycling, using less fuel and water, not wasting food, using our cars less and eating a diet which contains more plant based foods, can really help. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt ‘Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are’.
We can talk about how we feel with friends, family and colleagues. Others might be feeling the same and sharing our worries can help us both. We can also encourage each other or set mini challenges – to use our cars less or to create meals from leftovers for example.
We might want to consider joining a local community group. These help us to feel a part of something which is fantastic for mental health. Many such groups support the local community and environment by organising litter picks or community gardening/allotment projects which has the added bonus of getting outside and benefiting from the fresh air and healing effects of nature.
Or we might want to join a campaign or activist group. These help us to feel that our voice is being heard and connect us to other like minded people.
Finally, remember that it’s ok to switch off from the news. Social media means we are constantly seeing and hearing news stories or videos which can cause us stress and anxiety. Try not to allow it to be a continual stream, perhaps only checking the news at certain times. While it’s important to be aware of world affairs, we need to prioritise our own mental health.
So this week, there are two tiny tweaks! Firstly, to consider whether eco-anxiety is a problem for you and, if it is, to think about what you can do to help yourself. Secondly, and this one we should all do, is to make one small change which helps to reduce your carbon footprint. There are so many possibilities, which one will you go for?!
Until next time xx
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