It’s been a long time since we did a blog post but we have been keeping busy behind the scenes in the climate and mental health space.
Here is a transcript of a speech which I gave at the recent Earth Day: Unite to Survive event in nipaluna/Hobart. This event brought together multiple Tasmanian climate action groups for a common purpose and I was honoured to have been invited to contribute some thoughts about climate change and mental health, in particular the mental health impacts on young people.
“I’m here today as a doctor and a mother, who is concerned about what is happening to our planet.
In particular, I want to talk for the next few minutes about how our mental health and the health of our planet are bound together, and what we can do about it.
It will come as a surprise to none of you that people are worried about climate change. So I’m not going to tell you a whole bunch of statistics like I often do when I talk about this to my colleagues, but I do want to make the point that this goes far beyond ‘climate anxiety’, there are many dimensions to climate distress, including anger, grief and trauma, and many people will experience distress as a result of climate change, without ever identifying it as such.
Because whether you care about the planet or not, the actual reality of what is happening is still going to affect your mental health. ….why?
Because like all animals, we depend on our habitat for survival, and if it’s healthy, so are we.
We need clean air, clean water, food, and safe shelter, If those fundamentals are threatened, we suffer. And those of us who are poor, sick, young, old or otherwise disadvantaged will suffer more.
Australia is now 1.47 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures, 80 % of us have been exposed to climate driven extreme weather events in recent years…. events like heatwaves, bushfires and floods which are becoming more intense and frequent, with less time for recovery in between, and huge social, economic and cultural impacts.
These changes have significant and long lasting mental health effects. The World Health Organisation has called climate change the greatest threat to public health in the 21st century.
A child born in 2020 ( as my youngest was) is going to experience more than double the bushfire risk and almost 7 x the dangerous heat exposure of someone born in 1960, under current global pledges, which we are not currently on track to meet.
It is normal to find this troubling. In fact it has been described as and ‘outbreak of sanity’ . It is not irrational to feel anxious, angry, frustrated or grief stricken, and we know it is a significant concern for many people, of all ages, but especially for younger people.
And yet, we still hear some vocal sectors of society talking about it as if those who are concerned about this are crazy. That today’s youth are just too fragile or lacking resilience. Or even that it’s the teachers and scientists faults for putting all that troublesome truth in their heads and causing ‘needless distress’. No doubt they would feel much much better if we just continue to reassure them that there is nothing to see here, that we can just keep going the way things are and everything will be fine…
This is gaslighting on an industrial scale. We have had years of this dangerous denialism and inaction, no wonder people feel betrayed.
It’s bad enough to be concerned about a threat, but quite another to voice that concern only to have people around you deny the threat exists, or worse, say that you are the problem.
To make matters worse, we are all complicit to a degree in getting to this point. Many of our forebears benefited from systems of oppression, and exploitation that have caused huge damage. Not one of us here has not benefitted in some way shape or form from fossil fuels, and this is uncomfortable to sit with. Especially when we realise that globally, it’s those who have done the least to cause the problem, who stand to bear the brunt of the impacts.
All of this is complicated, with no easy solutions so I don’t blame anyone for wanting to look away.
But we can’t keep looking away from this uncomfortable truth, because lives are at risk. So how do we navigate this pain and distress, yet stay engaged.
I would suggest, that we get though this by re-connecting. Re- Connecting with our selves, with each other,
And with this amazing life giving planet, our home
To reconnect with ourselves we have to acknowledge what it is that we are feeling and this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We have to stop and look at stuff that is uncomfortable, and that’s scary, but also vital, we have to listen to what those feelings are telling us.
We grieve because we love. We feel angry, because we see injustice.
The good news is we don’t have to face this alone and if you look around at everyone else here you are looking at people who very likely feel like you do. We need to make space to talk and listen to each other about this, and sometimes, we may need to seek professional support.
From an evolutionary perspective, a degree of anxiety is actually incredibly useful, because it can motivate us to deal with a threat…. But how do we deal with a complex threat like climate change. A threat with no end point in sight, a threat with multiple causes, multiple impacts, and with unavoidable progression,… We can’t write it off as being entirely out of our control, but similarly, we know our individual actions are not enough. There is so much that needs to be done, it can be overwhelming.
How do we find hope in all this? Real hope, not just blind optimism? As Joan Baez said….’action is the antidote to despair’
And as Joanna Macy says : You don’t need to do everything. Do what calls your heart; effective action comes from love. It is unstoppable, and it is enough.
We must keep in mind though, that the capacity to take certain actions depends on privilege and a degree of autonomy that not everyone has access to. I acknowledge also, that there are differences in opinion within the environmental movement, about where the priorities lie, and what steps we should take to achieve them…but there is far more that unites us than divides us.
It helps others to feel able to get involved if we can embrace our imperfections and differences, we don’t have to be ‘perfect’ planetary citizens to play our part, and neither do other people.
When we come together to act we are empowered and we amplify our effectiveness. More than ever we need this collective action, we need to unite to survive, and thrive.
We have to know and trust that we are part of a whole community of care, each doing what we can according to our skills, resources and passions, but pulling in the same direction. We need to remind ourselves of this regularly, it’s important to share and celebrate the wins, the commonalities, and the positive visions of the future. I feel that strongly, being here with you all today.
As well as building these interpersonal connections, we need to connect with nature, to sustain, nurture and inspire us. This is something First Nations people have never lost sight of, but for many of us, this disconnection badly needs repair. When we feel deeply connected to nature, not only does it strengthen our resolve to act on its behalf, but also we can see ourselves as part of this ecosystem we a striving to protect and inherently worthy of care ourselves.
We are a finite resource that cannot be ceaselessly mined in our efforts for a better world. It is OK to step back sometimes and focus on sustaining the ecosystem within our skin. The natural world gives us abundant examples of cycles and seasons, and there is important learning for us there.
I like the analogy of us being the earth’s immune system, with many highly specialised components all working together in concert to defend ourselves and heal, we need to respect all the parts of this system, to nurture it, and keep it strong.
Ultimately, we get to choose our story, we do not know for certain what the future holds, and I invite you to choose a story of finding hope together in the midst of despair, a story where we collectively rise to the occasion with purpose and compassion.