As climate anxiety rises, chat groups tackle isolation and taboos

A man works at the Rhone Glacier partially covered with insulating foam to prevent it from melting due to global warming, in Switzerland on Oct 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - German climate activist Dieter Muller, 64, only began seriously considering his impact on the planet as he lay watching the stars on a wild camping retreat in Spain several years ago. Now, climate change worries him so much he often cannot sleep.

"Since I became aware of this, there's a lot of nights I didn't sleep through. Sometimes I wake up in the night and think about what can I do and what is going to happen," he told a virtual Climate Awakening discussion group.

But when he tries to talk to loved ones about it, they sometimes seem to be in a different world. From angry rejections to airy brush-offs, the message he gets over and over is that they do not want to hear about it.

"There's a lot of people who are not willing to talk about it, just saying 'I am too busy with my day-to-day life'," he said.

"Sometimes I feel like an alien when it comes to these climate topics, as if I see a different reality."

Climate change is spurring rising distress and mental health issues among generations young and old.

But psychologists and activists alike say many people do not want to talk about the increasingly urgent dangers it poses, because it is seen as too depressing or overwhelming.

In response, a growing network of climate support and discussion groups worldwide are offering spaces where people can open up about their feelings.

Psychologist and activist Margaret Klein Salamon, who started Climate Awakening's online discussions about climate-linked emotions last year, said: "Anxiety, fear, terror, rage and grief are all healthy and rational responses to climate threats." 

"But there's this kind of social taboo. You don't want to ruin the dinner party and bring up the end of the world."

Breaking taboos

Struggling to cope with the climate crisis is a normal response to a real threat and should not be characterised as a pathology or dismissed as an irrational feeling that needs to be overcome, said mental health experts working on climate issues.

"I might actually be more concerned about people who have no reaction at all," said Ms Alice Walker, a clinical psychologist who co-runs a regular Climate Cafe group based in Portsmouth.

Sometimes fear can be a driver for change. Teenage activist Greta Thunberg has spoken of how activism helped her cope with her crippling dread about a warming world.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaking at a Future climate strike in Milan on Oct 1, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

But if negative emotions are left to fester internally, they can be destructive, creating a spiral of despair and panic, psychologists said.

And while people can usually share their worries with close friends and family, others they try to speak with can be bad at acknowledging and coping with those negative feelings.

Mr Muller believes his friends and family often do not want to acknowledge the fear and helplessness that come with facing up to climate threats.

He said they are rather like some patients in the end-of-life care programme where he works, who cannot accept that their lives are coming to a close and instead fuss over minor plans for the future or busy themselves with online shopping.

Dismissal of their worries can in turn be bruising for people struggling with climate anxiety, psychologists said.

"People can often be met with... responses about how we should be more hopeful, or (that) technology will save us. They can have the experience of feeling a bit shut down in their usual social circles," Ms Walker said.

Her group is part of a network of Climate Cafes modelled on Death Cafes - a network of public meetings developed in Switzerland and Britain to enable frank conversations about the end of life.

Climate Cafes is a network of public meetings to enable conversations about climate-linked emotions. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM CLIMATECAFES

"Death and climate change are both to some extent taboo subjects," said Dr Rebecca Nestor, a board member of the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) who facilitates meetings and developed her group's climate cafe model.

Demand for training to set up Climate Cafes has seen a huge spike since the latest United Nations climate science report in August, which sounded a "code red for humanity", she noted.

Drivers for change?

Those logging on to virtual climate chats or arriving in community halls for conversation and cake range from teenagers to pensioners, and from experienced activists to those just starting to engage with the topic.

Some want to discuss their anxiety or questions about whether to have children in an uncertain future. Others express rage at leaders, or guilt over their own choices in the past.

But the most common thread among participants is a feeling of isolation and a desire to meet others who recognise and share a similar malaise, organisers said.

There is a feeling of isolation and a desire to meet others who recognise and share a similar malaise among participants. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"We are inherently social beings, and we can get enormous support from connecting with others," Ms Walker said.

"It can be quite powerful to come to a group where that is permitted - to share and to speak about... feelings, and to recognise that you're not alone." Having conversations can also drive change, said Climate Awakening creator Salamon.

Humans tend to gauge threats by looking at how others around them are reacting, she said in a video played as part of the climate emotions group discussions. She urged those taking part to keep trying to start discussions with friends and family.

Other climate group organisers said they wanted to create a space where people could simply focus on their own feelings without guilt or pressure to reach a specific outcome.

That, in itself, could give people a chance to move from panic to a more considered path forward, or give them room to recuperate when they feel burned out by campaign work, the experts noted.

"Being together can be enormously restorative," Ms Walker said. "There's huge power in... the solidarity of lots of people coming together with a shared purpose to make a difference."

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