Ben Bampton picks apart the way the term climate anxiety obscures both the reality of climate collapse and the experience of mental health sufferers.
Two dark clouds loom over today’s news agenda: the climate crisis, and mental health. Both, like echo chambers, surveillance capitalism and Trump, remind us of the challenges of our times. Mental health issues, like sea levels, are rising. The environmental health effects of the crisis, like depression, continue to take an increasing human toll. No wonder, then, that the term people keep talking about – “climate anxiety” – resembles both of these two critical issues.
Climate anxiety, defined by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” is at the centre of increasing clinical and public attention. Its manifestations are varied, ranging from an immediate fright-response to one’s entire habitat being at risk (in countries like the Maldives), to constant worry in face of an uncertain future (in Western economies where the direct threat to life is less imminent). While (rightly) not classified as a mental disorder, the public debate around it and the term ‘anxiety’ itself misleadingly presents “climate anxiety” as an individual issue – something which, as a recent Time article implied, you either do or don’t have.
The ‘climate anxiety’ label is unhelpful for those who suffer from severe anxiety. It blurs the line between rational and irrational
This tendency is worrying. As Caroline Hickman, a researcher for the Climate Psychology Alliance, puts it, climate anxiety is a rational, healthy response to the existential threat of living on a rapidly deteriorating planet. But framing our response to this in pathological terms, as yet another anxious disorder, not only misplaces the issue but vastly increases the number of people able to identify as ‘having anxiety’.
For severe anxiety sufferers, the popularization of a term which most can relate to risks undermining and even trivializing their experiences. Full-blown anxiety can be extremely disabling and, importantly, difficult to communicate. Micro-definitions of anxiety, such as “climate anxiety”, can make these conversations harder: rather than breaking down barriers to genuine empathy, they foster popular misconceptions about what severe anxiety is or feels like.
On the flipside, tying anxiety to the climate crisis can also affect those who feel such ‘anxieties’ most acutely. For severe sufferers of “climate anxiety” – such as parents who imagine killing their children to save them from a catastrophic future climate – it’s likely their condition is caused by a deeper, underlying mental health problem. Though the climate crisis can understandably exacerbate our deepest anxieties and fears, it is not necessarily the cause. Climatizing the notion of anxiety, then, problematically outsources its cause in the most serious cases.
All this is not to downplay the state of climate emergency, nor the experiences of those with chronic environmental worries. The fact that growing numbers of people experience environment-induced symptoms of grief, depression and anxiety reflects the human toll of our global climate crisis. But this is a crisis which requires a collective solution, not a confusing label which individualises and pathologizes the problem. The ‘climate anxiety’ label is unhelpful for those who suffer from severe anxiety. It blurs the line between rational and irrational, between individual health and global issue, between cause and effect. In doing so, it misrepresents the problem – both in the case of anxiety, and the climate. ‘Eco-awareness’, as Hickman suggests we call it instead, is neither irrational nor unhealthy. Pollution is the pathology.