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Is climate change affecting your mental health?

January 15, 2020

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As we enter the new year, it’s impossible to ignore the devastation brought by some of the worst bushfires in Australia’s history. They continue to rage in many parts of the country and it’s difficult to put into words the full scope of the disaster.

Human and animal life has been lost, thousands of homes and properties have been destroyed, temperatures have reached record highs alongside the continuing drought, and millions of acres of bushland have been devastated.

The impact on the mental health of people directly affected is immeasurable. Our thoughts are with all the communities affected. We are thankful to the mental health support services, fire and emergency services workers, and everyday people who have  gotten behind these communities to offer support in any way they can.

However, ongoing concern over natural disasters and climate change, more generally, has seen the rise of “eco-anxiety”, which was first defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2017 as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

For young people in particular, the environment is one of the three most important issues facing Australia, along with mental health, according to the 2019 Mission Australia Youth Survey. To have some anxiety is an appropriate response to what’s happening on our planet.

When it’s all too easy to turn on your TV or scroll through social media and be confronted by tragic environmental stories, how do you keep the balance and avoid becoming completely overwhelmed?

batyr Chief Happiness Officer Dr Tim Sharp (aka Dr Happy) gives us his top tips. 

Take charge of your mental health

“It helps no one, not even the environment, if you’re feeling so hopeless and helpless that depression takes over,” Dr Happy said. 

“You can only make a positive difference if you first take care of yourself.”

Reachout.com.au suggests that you try saying the following statements to yourself if you feel overwhelmed:

  • ‘It’s okay to feel stressed about climate change.’
  • ‘It makes sense that I’m nervous about taking a break, because I really care about making a difference.’
  • ‘I can create change, but change takes time.’
  • ‘Most scientists say that there’s still a window of time to limit greenhouse gas emissions. There is hope.’

Another thing you can do is to take regular breaks from social media and the news if it’s getting you down – it doesn’t mean you don’t care. Giving yourself space and time to feel can help you to re-energise and make a positive difference in your day.

You may also want to consider meditation, breathing, yoga, regular exercise or changing your diet, such as reducing caffeine; whatever you need to do to ensure your own mental health. 

“Experiment with different coping strategies until you find what works for you and then make sure you prioritise these into your daily routine,” Dr Happy said.

If your distress is starting to impact your ability to work or study or to live your life then talk to your GP about finding a good clinical psychologist.

Make small changes in your everyday life

Trying to carry all of the planet’s climate problems on your shoulders is exhausting and can take a toll on your mental wellbeing.

A healthier response is to do things you can control and that are within your reach on an everyday basis.

“Recycle and reuse, minimise water usage, make dietary changes to lessen your impact on the environment (such as eating less red meat), use public transport more, use energy less and get involved in environmental movements and conversations,” Dr Happy said.

Get social, find like-minded people and speak up

If you’re feeling isolated and helpless due to climate anxiety, hang out with friends and people who feel as strongly about the environment as you do. 

Getting together can be a great way to express your concerns. You won’t feel as alone because there are others that feel the same as you do.

From there, you may want to consider organising your community to petition your local member of parliament, or a fundraiser to raise money for environmental causes or eco-friendly technologies.

Donating is also a great to support positive changes and it doesn’t have to be money! You can also volunteer your time to help environmental organisations on a range of projects and get those warm and fuzzies. Check out conservationvolunteers.com.au for a range of opportunities.

Be realistic

As young people, we want to change the world and it can be easy to have feelings of shame when we fall short of this ideal.

None of us are, or ever will be perfect and the fact is, we all make a contribution to carbon emissions in some way. Just being a human on earth means we’re leaving a carbon footprint!

It’s important to understand that it’s the systems in place in our modern world, such as the burning of fossil fuels for power, that mean it’s not always possible to avoid harming the planet.

Instead, take little positive environmental steps in your life, and encourage those around you to do the same. Lots of littles will add up to something big!

Over 2020, batyr will continue to explore the topic of eco-anxiety as we share stories of hope and resilience from young people who have felt the effects of natural disasters and climate change.

If you’re in need of support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

If you’re in a bushfire-affected community, you may also want to check out Beyond Blue’s Looking after yourself after a disaster.