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How to Fight Climate Dread

Climate dread is exhausting yet we must look up. Here's how.

Key points

  • As the world warms, more and more people are grappling with moderate to severe climate anxiety.
  • Climate change-fueled disasters can lead to chronic stress and trigger mental health problems in affected communities.
  • When disaster strikes, affordable mental health service demand can overwhelm supply.
  • Apps can help bridge the gap and offer accessible mental health to communities in need.

Climate change is upon us. In Netflix’s recent dark comedy “Don’t Look Up,” scientists played by Leonardo Dicaprio and Jennifer Lawerence desperately try to communicate that a comet is hurtling toward Earth, and most certainly will destroy the planet. Their efforts to save humanity are disturbingly futile, and are obstructed by partisan politics, private industry interests, distrust in science, misinformation campaigns, and a lack of global collaboration. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I don’t know about you, but by the end of the movie, I felt like a train was coming head-on and we were tied to the tracks, pleading for help. Cue eco-distress and the dawn of Generation Dread, an entire generation that must grapple with the impact of climate chaos and disruption.

According to a recent study of climate anxiety among 10,000 individuals aged 16-25 spanning 10 countries, 56 percent said that they feel humanity is doomed and 39 percent are hesitant to have children due to climate concerns. A poll by the American Psychiatric Association found that more than two-thirds of Americans feel somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change. This deeply uncomfortable state of existential uncertainty is a very human response to apocalypse creep.

pandpstock001/Shutterstock
Source: pandpstock001/Shutterstock

In Sonoma County, California, where I live and work, we’ve experienced climate change first-hand. A series of devastating wildfires killed dozens of people. Residents were forced to leave their pets behind. Huge chunks of housing inventory—which is already low—disappeared. Family heirlooms were lost. Schools and places of worship were damaged. The people who were lucky enough to escape with their lives found themselves embroiled in lengthy insurance battles. With no tourists visiting, small businesses were pushed to the brink and the air was suffocating and unbreathable.

I saw astounding resilience in my community, but that doesn’t diminish the cumulative toll of these traumas. The last fire happened more than a year ago, yet my family and I still struggle to sleep on warm and windy nights—and forget about making plans during the fire season. Last summer, big-rig trucks hauled in recycled water to keep our yard alive during extreme drought—and my heart sank with each delivery.

To help those who were impacted by these disasters, Stanford University and the VA National Center for PTSD teamed up with local healthcare leaders to create the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative. We co-designed this community-based approach to democratize access to science-based tools for healing. Through the collaborative, we have trained over 400 therapists to provide disaster therapy, offered free trauma-informed yoga classes, and launched a public mobile app, Sonoma Rises, which was evaluated by teens who had lost their homes and schools.

Our experience building the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative taught us three important lessons about how to help a traumatized community:

  1. Disaster survivors are incredibly busy repairing their lives. Between all the competing priorities, mental health can get lost in the mix. Disaster-impacted individuals tend to be chronically stressed, but may not feel distressed enough to seek out help. They often compare their problems to others who “have it worse,” and minimize their need for support.
  2. When disaster strikes, affordable mental health service demand can overwhelm supply, scalability is constrained, and reaching the displaced is very challenging.
  3. Disaster relief resources like FEMA eventually go away and communities must develop their own infrastructure for supporting mental health recovery. Expecting therapists and partnered organizations to work pro bono is unsustainable. Funds for mental health services and evaluation need to be accessible prior to disaster onset in order to rapidly address the needs of the community and prevent the development of more serious mental health struggles.

The work we did in Sonoma County also made it clear that apps can help people get the mental health support they need on the ground. Mental health apps can reduce stigma and reach vulnerable groups at scale any time, any place. The VA National Center for PTSD has a suite of free, private, science-based mobile mental health apps that can help manage difficult feelings and problems related to climate dread. These apps address a range of topics including mindfulness, sleep, PTSD, COVID-19, drinking, anger and irritability, relationships, and more.

Apps, yoga, and brief disaster therapy are no silver bullet for solving the climate crisis, but with better mental well-being we can find meaning in the chaos and live closer to our values. We must look up with courage, accept reality, and take action to save our planet—and hopefully stay sane while trying.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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