CAHA at COP25: Ingrid Johnston on eco-anxiety

Saturday 14 December 2019

One of the most interesting and practical take-aways from COP25 has been the issue of eco-anxiety. It’s a term I had heard before, but frankly had dismissed as being a bit fringe and unnecessary. Having spent a week at COP, I have completely changed my mind. 



Eco-anxiety arises from mental health issues which accompany concern about the climate crisis we are facing. For public health advocates working in the climate change space, it’s particularly relevant. Pretty much everything we do in public health is a long-term battle. There are few quick wins in this game. However, most of the time, while we fight the problem is that people keep getting sick unnecessarily. Sometimes dying unnecessarily, and we know good ways to prevent it, if only the politicians could be convinced. In the climate crisis space though, what’s happening while we fight is an existential threat. It’s not about trying to improve people’s lives and protect their health. This is about protecting life itself, for everyone, everywhere, with a ticking clock which seems to be ticking faster and faster every time we check in on it.


So how is that manifesting for those working in this field? I attended an eco-anxiety workshop held here at COP, run by Dr Courtney Howard. Advertised only 1 ½ days before it was on, the room was at capacity, with about 40 people turning up on the only ‘day off’ during COP - the middle Sunday. In that room, we shared the ways in which these issues affect us. Nightmares, sleeplessness, increased alcohol consumption, burn out, smoking, tearfulness, hopelessness, and anger were common. Everyone there experienced mental health challenges about working in this space. I’ve done more crying this week than I care to consider, especially looking at the energy and passion of the youth, and thinking - but we’re not going to fix it are we? The 1% will continue to win, and just analyse the developing situation for creative ways to use the unfolding destruction to make more money.


As local crises evolve, like what’s happening in NSW right now, we need to find ways to recognise and cope with the eco-anxiety that accompanies it. Anger spills out onto the streets and within the halls of COP in demonstration, but we need more. We need something that helps people when they get home at night.


Courtney provided an interesting way of framing what’s going on. She talked about the world having been given a diagnosis, and everyone responding to it differently. That’s true of any major medical diagnosis. There’s acceptance, action, denial, avoidance, wilful ignorance. Everyone is different and responds in different ways. We see each of these in the world’s responses to the climate crisis, and perhaps thinking about it this way will help to humanise things, and decrease the anger and frustration from those whose instinctive reaction is action, towards those whose instinctive reaction is different. Courtney described ‘constructive unpleasant emotions’, for which the prescription should not be anti-depressants, but action. It’s not a clinical problem to feel anger, sadness and frustration at what’s happening. It’s rational and normal. The trick is to recognise it as such, and then find a way of doing something positive with it.