In his practice in Bangor, psychologist Will Hafford is seeing something new in his patients, what he terms “climate anxiety.” Centered around the issue of climate change, it’s a problem that hovers over other more typical reasons people seek therapy, and it leads to dread, grief and a questioning of one of the most basic, and hopeful, of human actions.

“‘Did I make a mistake choosing to have children?’ is a common refrain among clients,” Hafford said.

There are other names for this emerging branch of mental health. Solastalgia is one, a term coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe a sort of homesickness that happens “when one is still at ‘home’ ” but that home is under pressure from development and climate change. It’s mourning for the future and an existential dread, overlaid with helplessness. It’s been part of the national conversation for a few years, but Hafford and other mental health professionals say climate anxiety is on the rise, particularly as people grapple with increasingly bad news about the planet’s future.

“It seems like the alarm bells are ringing louder,” said South Portland therapist Karen Fisher.

There was a huge clang in early October, when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – made up of scientists from around the world – released a report that described a high likelihood of a dauntingly changed world by 2040. Without radical intervention in the form of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the temperatures will be 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels, the report says. Drought will be widespread. So will wildfires, and flooding from rising seas. Already marginalized communities will be suffering. The coral reefs will die.

The report is intended to inform the upcoming Katowice Climate Change Conference in Poland, where world leaders participating in the Paris Accord will discuss ways to slow climate change. But its release in advance of the December meeting also served as a wake-up call for people who knew the threat was real, but didn’t quite grasp how dire – or near – it is.

Oregon-based Thomas Doherty is a clinical psychologist and leading expert in the impacts of climate change on mental health. A decade ago, he served on the first task force established by the American Psychological Association to study the connection between climate change and psychology, and is still deeply engaged in the issue. He described the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report as troubling from a mental health perspective.

“Not so much for the findings,” he wrote in an email, “none of which are really new. But rather that it continues the pattern of dire predictions without clear mechanism for how to deal with them. So it’s really a set-up, psychologically and emotionally.”

The set-up he’s referring to is for something too big to process. As Portland therapist Patricia Reis puts it, “The human psyche is not equipped.”

Supporters gather on the steps of the federal courthouse in Portland during a candlelight rally on Monday organized by 350 Maine in support of the plaintiffs in Juliana v. the United States. The case was brought to court by 21 young people asserting the federal government has knowingly contributed to climate change in the last 50 years.

It’s one thing if you live in a place that is severely affected already, Reis said, say Florida in the fall of 2018, as a hurricane of frightening power has just come through and decimated your whole town. But when it is more distant, a concept still, hovering just outside of lives already overburdened by other stresses, it feels so beyond comprehension that for many, the mind shuts down.

“It is like, ‘I am trying to figure out how to pay for my groceries and rent and how is my kid doing in school?’ ” Reis said. “You are not thinking about how the water is rising or there is drastic drought in Africa. You say, ‘I am sorry, but I have got to go to work. I work 60 hours a week, I have to pack a lunch.’ ”

To handle something so enormous takes a lot of “spiritual stamina,” Reis said. And solidarity. “We need community. We need that kind of collectivity that bonds over certain things.”

CLIMATE HOSTAGES

Bonding? In this political climate? That may seem like a stretch, especially to the climate hostages. That’s the term Doherty coined to describe people who believe in the science and the prospect of a doomsday – or at minimum, a much harder life – for much of the human race, and must also cope with a vocal minority that deny climate change is happening. The deniers include elected and appointed officials, who have the power to lead on things like using less fossil fuel and rolling back the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming temperatures worldwide.

Technically, one could describe Mary Annaise Heglar as a climate hostage. But she’s fighting back. After the recent UN report came out, she published an essay on Medium that got picked up and shared on Vox.com, thousands of times. She wrote the essay in a fever the night the report was released, she said in a phone interview. She works for an environmental group in New York as an editor, and nothing in the report was new to her. But she knew it was sending her less aware friends into a tailspin – a justifiable one.

“For a lot of people, I realized it was their reckoning,” Heglar said. Before the report, she had a harder time getting through.

“When I would bring this up to people, we would talk about the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice,” Heglar said. “And I would say, but what about the planet? You have never pissed off the planet. You could stop the Holocaust, but at this point, you have got to stop the planet.”

“If you want to get bummed out, I have got you covered,” Heglar said ruefully. She did a lot of grieving herself.

But the point of her essay was to tell people to get angry, rather than depressed. Heglar says in the article that it is the corporations, and their enablers, that are causing climate change, not the person who leaves the lights on too long.

“We need to deal with the supply, not the consumption,” Heglar said. “I do think it is important to cut your carbon footprint. But we overemphasize that at the expense of the actual culprits. The actual bank robbers.”

She avoids depression by spending time in New York parks, and by refusing to give up.

“I do believe that a better world is worth fighting for,” Heglar said. “And even if things get futile, I am not going to down without a fight.”

Under Doherty’s definition, Portland resident Kim Simmons is also a climate hostage. Simmons studies social movements, teaches women and gender studies and sociology at the University of Southern Maine and is a deeply engaged political activist. Translation: she’s got plenty of stressors in her life already. Climate change is another layer in the lasagna of stressors she discusses when she’s talking to a doctor. She has spoken to both her medical doctor and a therapist about climate change.

“It comes up,” Simmons said. “I don’t know how it couldn’t.”

She’s been thinking about mental health and climate change for about five years, she said, inspired in part by interacting with authors Joanna Macy and Mary Pipher, both of whom have published books around the idea of not giving up hope. Macy’s “Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy” was particularly helpful.

“Joanna makes this argument that hope is actually a practice,” Simmons said.

But Simmons admits it is getting harder to practice hope.

“Activism gives people a sense of agency,” Simmons said. “A sense of efficacy. And one of the biggest challenges of climate activism is that we can’t see the changes we’re making. It feels so David and Goliath.”

When her children were younger, she took them to political actions and engaged them in the kinds of sustainability exercises – recycling, composting, moving away from plastics and so forth – that made the family feel better, “like we’re making a dent.”

But as the news piles up – including President Trump’s announced intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord in 2020, effectively breaking a worldwide pact to fight climate change – feeling like she is making a dent gets harder. “How do we parent under these circumstances?” she said.

Or engage with friends. Simmons jokes that some of her closest friends don’t want to talk to her about climate change. It’s simply too much.

“The thing I try to say to them is that they are strong enough and smart enough to stay in,” Simmons said. “I wouldn’t say they are activists as much as I am, but they aren’t passive people. There is something about climate change. It is the topic that is the most shut down.”

The way Simmons sees it, responding to it, staying resilient as both individuals and a species will take building a new muscle. “A sociological and emotional muscle that we have to build,” she said.

PATHS TO RESILIENCY

The mental health community is gathering its forces to address climate anxiety. Earlier this year, a group of psychiatrists formed the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. In a call to action on its website, its members declared, “We shall not remain silent when the disavowal of reality is leading civilization toward an inexorable existential crisis.” One of its members, Bangor physician Dr. Tony Ng, is the first president of the caucus on Climate Change and Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association.

Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association partnered with a group called Eco-America to study the issue, producing most recently a 2017 report called “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate.” The point of that report was to go beyond some of the more obvious health impacts to be expected from climate change, which range from vector-borne diseases, injuries related to extreme storms, heat and drought to worsening asthma and allergies. We already know we’ll have more ticks and Lyme disease, but what about worry? “The tolls on our mental health are far reaching,” the report said. Climate change is already inducing stress, depression and anxiety and as a result is expected to increase aggression, violence and crime (studies link heat to aggression).

It’s important to start developing a psychological resiliency now, the report says. And to stop spinning in an endless loop of despair. Even if it is tempting.

Self-comforting is common, said South Portland therapist Karen Fisher, whether that may be relying more heavily on that glass of wine at the end of the day or “basic stuff like eating a sleeve of Oreos.”

Fisher is in the process of shutting down her private practice in South Portland, but said the level of anxiety among her patients ramped up in the last year. The announcement about pulling out of the Paris agreement was a flash point.

“People aren’t coming to me specifically identifying that their anxiety is because of climate change,” Fisher said. “But their symptoms are increased by things like climate change and the political landscape.

Molly Wilcox of Damariscotta during the 350 Maine candlelight rally in Portland. Wilcox says she has been following Juliana v. the United States for a few years. “I hope to heaven that we can prevail,” she says. Some therapists suggest volunteerism or personal action to combat feelings of helplessness.

“It becomes lumped into the reasons that they are there in the first place,” Fisher said.

Like most therapists, she tries to help her patients develop a problem-solving approach. “And make sure that they have some self-efficacy to make change,” Fisher said. “The macro piece (of climate change) is that really people feel like they can’t do that. That they really have a sense of helplessness about how they are going to be part of the solution.”

Even those who have been actively involved in looking for solutions, like Bob Klotz, a co-founder of 350 Maine, an offshoot of Bill McKibben’s anti-carbon campaign group 350.org, have struggled.

“It all has undeniable psychological impacts,” Klotz said. “Speaking for myself, as an activist and a person and a health care provider (Klotz is a physician assistant), it has been a pretty depleting time over the last few years.”

Still, the group holds rallies and takes action. Just last week 350 Maine held a candlelit rally in support of Our Children’s Trust, the young climate activists who filed a lawsuit against the federal government for failing to act on climate change. Recently, he had a conversation with a 350 Maine activist: “I said to her, ‘You are 28. How is this affecting you with having children?’ She started crying. Because she wouldn’t want to bring children into this. That just kind of rocked me back on my heels.”

COPING MECHANISMS

For Hafford, who also teaches psychology and adventure therapy at Unity College, this emerging field of psychology is a new frontier. “These problems are perhaps exceeding what culturally we are prepared for,” he said.

But he sees ways to cope. He steers patients toward two areas where they can see a real impact. The first step he urges is getting involved locally.

“Many of these solutions are going to be based right in your community,” Hafford said. “Does your community have a disaster plan? What are the resources in your area? A prepared community is a resilient one.”

If a patient of his finds gaps in the resiliency plan of his or her community, Hafford suggests trying to fill those in through volunteerism or personal action. It could be getting solar panels, or making sure to eat local. Or reaching out to others in the community to talk about what the world is facing.

Step two might not seem like an obvious “treatment,” but getting outdoors is a balm for climate anxiety, experts say.

“Get outside for at least a small amount of time every day,” Hafford said. “It lowers your blood pressure and is restorative in a lot of ways. Being able to spend time in a nature and learn about it is important when you are feeling powerless.”

He teaches adventure therapy to Unity students and in that work, sees almost a training ground for the kind of work mankind will have to do to face the challenges of climate change. “Adventure work is all about facing challenges and embracing discomfort,” Hafford said. “You are voluntarily making yourself uncomfortable to achieve a variety of objectives. When it begins, you don’t know what the solution is, but there is a team you have to work with. That team will succeed if everybody is doing their part. I see a parallel there.”

It doesn’t have to be extreme, no ropes courses or trips up Everest (or even Katahdin) are required, Hafford said.

“There are naturalist programs that run all across the state of Maine that are sometimes free. There are outdoor programs through the Y, local meetup groups to go walking or hiking. Yes, even forest bathing.”

Klotz likes this idea. “The quote from my acupuncturist is, ‘We need to help people to learn to love the world,’ ” he said.

 

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