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Eco anxiety and grief: It’s real, and there are ways to cope

Anxiety, fear and a deep sense of loss felt over climate-related changes are on the rise. More research is needed, and vulnerable and marginalised groups should be a priority, experts say.

When about 50 tertiary students and members of the public gathered last month for a workshop in Singapore on next month’s United Nations climate change conference, they talked first about expectations and the ground to be covered at the conference.

Then, they discussed feelings of anxiety and fear caused by climate change.

Awareness of ecological anxiety and grief is slowly growing as humans come to terms with climate change and its effects, including the potential widespread loss of plant and animal species and melting of ice caps.

While eco anxiety and grief are not specific or diagnosable disorders or conditions, researchers say eco anxiety is the worry, anxiety and fear over the state of the environment relating to climate change, while eco grief is the deep sense of loss, sadness and lament felt for the same reasons.

There is no clear distinction between eco anxiety and grief, Dr Neville Ellis, a research fellow at the University of Western Australia’s School of Agriculture and Environment, told Eco-Business.

“In the context of climate change, loss, uncertainty and feelings of powerlessness can co-mingle, creating a complicated emotional experience,” he said.

At the eco anxiety discussion in Singapore, organised by the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute, four panelists including Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong and Singapore Youth for Climate Action co-founder Nor Lastrina Hamid shared their experiences and advice on addressing eco-anxiety.

Ong is convinced that eco anxiety is real and on the rise, especially among children and young people, “because of the dystopia of the future due to climate change and therefore the despair and hopelessness associated with these environmental concerns”.

A young workshop participant, for instance, wondered how she could be working in her current role as a banker instead of doing more about climate change. “I wanted her to know that her anxiety is real yet she must also believe that she can start something within her workplace to help her make sense of her place,” said Ong.

Eco anxiety can be a healthy response to what is happening in the world, she said. “More focus on climate chaos and the climate crisis is good to pressure governments and businesses to take action,” Ong said, advising the participants to do what they can with what they have.

We know people of a lower socio-economic status will be more impacted. We also know that people who have pre-existing mental health conditions tend to be more impacted by climate-related hazards.

Dr Katie Hayes, climate change and mental health researcher.

While there has been research on the mental health impact of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in the United States, research on eco anxiety and grief, including on urban dwellers who may not bear the brunt of climate-related disasters, is in its infancy.

To date, research into eco grief has been conducted on climate scientists, Australian farmers and Canadian Inuit communities, said Ellis. 

There has also been research on visitors and residents of the Great Barrier Reef, added Ellis, who is currently involved in a project in Western Australia that explores non-economic losses and damages from climate change, such as identity and sense of place.

Another research project that will begin next year is by the University of Queensland, which will document climate change loss and grief among Pacific Islanders in the Cook Islands, Marshall Islands and Vanuatu. The project will involve interviews and workshops with 200 participants or more, and researcher Karen McNamara hopes that shining the spotlight on the plight of Pacific Islanders will serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the world on the losses from climate change.

“If we know more, we can better plan for these losses and develop approaches to work through them by supporting healing and hope, and lessen their impact on people’s lives,” she said in a statement put out by the university last month.

Multiplying inequality

One thing that researchers agree on, is that marginalised groups and communities will be disproportionately exposed to climate change risks. “We know people of a lower socio-economic status will be more impacted. We also know that people who have pre-existing mental health conditions tend to be more impacted by climate-related hazards,” said Dr Katie Hayes, a Canadian climate change and mental health researcher.

Asked what policy makers can do to address eco anxiety and grief, Hayes noted that mental health is, overall, one of the most neglected health issues. Governments and institutions can increase support, access and infrastructure for mental healthcare in all communities, and specifically target those that are most at risk and facing inequities, she said. Mental health resources should also be relevant to people of different cultures and their day-to-day lives, she added.

I hope we don’t lose our humanity with each other in our collective effort (to take climate action).

Anthea Ong, Nominated Member of Parliament, Singapore

There are various ways to cope with eco anxiety and grief, the experts said.

For some, it could mean consulting a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker, while for others, it could mean building connections with nature, said Hayes.

Most cultures have rituals to help the bereaved to come to terms with their loss, but until recently, ecological loss was not even recognised as something that could be grieved, said Ellis. “Today, however, we are seeing an increasing number of memorials dedicated to losses in the natural world, such as the funeral service held earlier this year for the Okjökull glacier in western Iceland,” he said. “For me, such rituals are powerful and constructive ways of coming to terms with ecological loss, and for acknowledging our personal and shared grief.”

At the workshop in Singapore, Ong advised participants not to unintentionally create more guilt and despair by “thinking our way is the only way or the better way to solve this mammoth adaptive challenge”.

“I hope we don’t lose our humanity with each other in our collective effort (to take climate action),” she said.

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