Climate Action

Coping in coronavirus: Lessons in mental health from climate activism

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, people are adjusting to new ways of living.

Forced inside, many people are alone, separated from family, support systems and mental health professionals with nothing but an endless feed of bad news to keep company. More people than ever are filing for unemployment as the world faces a global recession. 

Unsurprisingly, coronavirus is taking a toll on our mental health, fostering emotions of fear, loneliness and anxiety, all fueled by an uncertain future.  

“Psychological health in times of crisis is like a wrestling match,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. “The situation throws stressors at you. The question is whether your coping mechanisms are strong enough to overcome them.”

These stressors, however, are nothing new to individuals who have been fighting another global crisis: climate change. And though the emotions spurred by a pandemic may be new to many, activists have been using coping mechanisms for years to deal with the anxiety, depression and despair of our existential climate crisis. 

In a report published by Yale’s Program on Climate Communication, two in three Americans are at least “somewhat worried” about climate change, up 10 percentage points over the past five years.

Digging deeper, we can see that climate change affects people’s mental health through both the increased anxiety about an uncertain future, and the trauma people experience in climate-fueled natural disasters. Both ways can create a sense of powerlessness.

Taking action in the face of a seemingly powerless situation, however, can fight these feelings. Last year the Independent spoke to teachers and psychiatrists, reporting that climate activism reduces mental health symptoms among young people

Psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, who specializes in psychological effects of climate change, notes that youth climate activists use the energy from their emotions to create change. 

“There is energy in those emotions – fear, rage, despair – and [youth are] capturing that energy, harnessing it and redirecting it into empowering actions,” said Van Susteren. 

There is energy in those emotions – fear, rage, despair – and [youth are] capturing that energy, harnessing it and redirecting it into empowering actions.

Lise Van Susteren, psychiatrist

Van Susteren, who is a part of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance and a member of the Earth Day Network board, is the expert witness on psychological damage to children in the youth-led constitutional climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States

For many climate activists, action means striking for climate, forming organizations and demanding change from leaders. Between all this, they have the added stresses of being a high school student: homework, social pressures, looming graduations and college applications. 

Seventeen-year-old Jamie Margolin, co-founder of the youth climate organization Zero Hour, has been an outspoken advocate for mental health, including ways to prioritize mental health in her new book Youth to Power, coming out in June.

“I think the biggest challenge for me has been my mental health,” said Margolin at a panel hosted by Earth Day Network and Twitter last year. “That’s something I am just very open about, to reduce the stigma around it… I’ll go to bed at night feeling so drained and the mental and emotional toll has been really challenging.”

In a recent interview with Earth Day Network, Jerome Foster II, a climate activist in Washington, D.C., said he uses “comfort calls” with other activists to deal with these mental and emotional tolls.

“You just feel so bad that you just want to stop organizing,” said Foster. “We have healing calls to be able to like… just let it out. You get to rant about how you’re feeling.”

These comfort calls have become a key coping mechanism amid the coronavirus outbreak. Apps like Zoom, FaceTime and Google Hangouts have become our platforms of choice as we move human interaction online for our virtual happy hours, movie nights and rant sessions.

Despite their similarities, however, coronavirus and climate change are not the same crisis. For one, the coronavirus offers a clear enemy — the COVID-19 virus — whereas in climate change the enemy is us, specifically all our carbon-emitting activities.

The coronavirus also has a clear solution: staying indoors and avoiding people to reduce transmission and minimize the spread of the virus. The solution is relatively straightforward, albeit utterly disruptive to human life and interaction at a global scale. Conversely, climate change requires a complete restructuring of our economy, as well as countless other transformations across energy, transportation, agriculture and politics — oh, and of course lifestyle.

As stakeholders weigh the actions required to take on these dual crises, individuals are forced to grapple with similar feelings of despair, hopelessness and fear. That’s why in both cases, it’s important to take care of our health and explore ways to cope with these emotions.

You could pick up a new hobby, like art, or read a book or connect with others. And you can redirect the energy from your emotions into something productive for the planet, as Van Susteren suggests.

“Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something,” she said. There is no silver-bullet solution to climate change, but we can “offer our individual actions, all counting collectively.”

Individual action is what the environmental movement was built on. It’s what inspired the first Earth Day, when 20 million individuals took to the streets to demand greater protections for our planet. This first Earth Day in 1970 sparked the modern environmental movement, and individuals remain as important as ever. 

Together, individuals can collectively force change, even at the highest levels of government. Even stuck at home, people can make a difference (to get you started, here are 11 actions for the planet amid a pandemic). 

You can also partake in digital striking or citizen science. And on April 22 — the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — participate in EARTHRISE, the largest online mobilization to protect our planet.

For more mental health coping techniques, here are tips to manage the stress of COVID-19. Additionally, USA Today recently highlighted some free online therapy options, and NPR discussed stay-at-home therapy options.

Photo at top: A view of the Bethesda Fountain in an empty Central Park during the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City. Photo credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider