A student in Wendy Petersen Boring’s climate-change-focused class said she woke at 2 a.m. and then cried for two solid hours about the warming ocean.
“This is a computer science major,” Petersen Boring said.
Petersen Boring, an associate professor of history, religious studies, women & gender studies at Willamette University in Oregon, has been teaching about climate change for a little over a decade. In that short time, she has watched her students’ fear, grief, stress and anxiety grow.
“Back in 2007, it was the mouse in the room; then, it became the elephant in the room. By 2016, those concerns and fears began to flood over,” Petersen Boring said.
Her students aren’t alone. Polls show that many more Americans worry about global warming. There’s no clinical definition, but climate anxiety and grief or solastalgia – “the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment” – has become such a concern that the American Psychological Association created a 69-page climate-change guide to help mental health care providers.
There’s even a growing number of organizations of people promising not to have children “due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face if this existential threat,” as a group called BirthStrike puts it.
Who can blame them? This year’s climate change headlines are depressing on a good day, terrifying at worst:
“One million species threatened with extinction because of humans”
“250,000 deaths a year from climate change is a ‘conservative estimate,’ research says”
“CO2 levels at highest for 3 million years”
Climate change linked to greenhouse gas emissions has created record high temperatures and more extreme storms, droughts and wildfires. Those climate change-related natural disasters have had a profound negative impact on the mental health of survivors of these extreme events, according to the United Nations. Suicides have increased, as have depression, anxiety, stress, grief, anger and PTSD.
Higher temperatures alone have led to more suicides and increased psychiatric hospitalization and have hurt our sleep, which can also also harm mental health. These problems will get worse as the temperature continues to rise, research shows.
It’s going to take an enormous global effort to keep the planet from that catastrophic point. Yet the Trump administration has buried government reports on climate change. Trump pushes for “American energy dominance,” developing initiatives that reward greenhouse gas-producing industries. This lack of political will is compounding some people’s anxiety, experts say.
“With the Trump election, the change in my students, the sense of grief and fear and paralysis in the room, became palpable,” Petersen Boring said.