What Depression Taught Me About the Climate Crisis

Mental illness and climate despair may be more related than you think. They might also contain each others' solutions.

When I finally woke up and started allowing myself to understand the extent of the climate crisis, I had a typical reaction.

I started feeling hopeless, as I realized how vast the problem was and how little is being done about it.

Soon, I realized that this feeling, in all its doom and gloom, felt oddly familiar. As someone who has, like many others, experienced depression, I'm not entirely a stranger to feelings of hopelessness. Of course, climate change exists on a scale much different from my personal struggles, but I believe that the feelings it creates are actually quite similar to the consequences of depression. Actually, depression and climate despair may be more connected than most of us could imagine.

Depression and Climate Despair: A Strange Loop

Depression and climate despair are similar in a number of ways. They're different from ordinary sadness or despair over world events, in that they can feel larger than life, endless, and constant. They can taint everything, sucking the joy out of once-beloved things. Also, they can often manifest themselves more as exhaustion and numbness rather than outright emotion.

"Climate despair," though not yet a registered illness, is certainly a chronic problem, one that won't just "go away" with a change in perspective. Of course, just as depression isn't a choice or a personal fault, climate despair isn't a sign of weakness. It may be an appropriate and understandable reaction to the fact that the earth is in mortal peril, and it certainly won't just disappear if we distract ourselves or try to push it away.

Image via BrainPOP

Many people who don't have clinical depression but who care about climate change are experiencing depression-like symptoms—it's even making some people suicidal. Therefore, skills that are useful in coping with depression (or anxiety, or trauma, or other similar mental health-related problems) might also be useful ways to cope with the reality of climate change.

Like depression, climate despair requires active treatments that address the problem at its source. Typically, the best treatments for depression are medication and therapy. One of the basic tenets of psychotherapy is the assumption that healing begins with getting emotions out in the open and accepting the reality of what's causing those feelings. In my experience, sometimes, staring full-force into the darkest emotions and riding them out is the best thing you can do. In this case, acceptance is absolutely key.

So in terms of climate change, the equivalent would be accepting that we are living in the end times, that the world is decaying around us. That acceptance is stage one. There's something cathartic about opening yourself to the truth—it may even, as they say, set you free.

On the other hand, this isn't meant to advocate languishing in passive sadness. With the help of therapy and medication, it's possible to have depression and to simultaneously enjoy and fully engage with life. Other, smaller things like exercise, nutrition, keeping your room clean, and spending time with others can help, too, though they're definitely not cure-alls. In terms of climate despair, these things might be equivalent to living your life in a conscientious, eco-friendly way, or participating in local clean-ups, or taking Internet breaks, or the like.

It's all part of an ongoing journey, and there are good moments and bad ones. So it will be as we learn how to live with climate change.

Personally, I've spent a long time teaching myself to counter feelings of sadness with a determination to not let them dictate how I live my life. So when I feel sad because of climate change, it doesn't floor me like it might've without this experience. In light of this, I've actually begun to think that maybe—just maybe—the weights are the same.

A Pandemic Problem

Depression and other mental illnesses are not uncommon. According to some recent studies, 1 in 4 adults will suffer from one at some point in their lives; and never has there been a time in history when so many people are suffering from depression and anxiety in particular. While the spike in diagnoses is certainly correlated with a rise in awareness and destigmatization, I believe it may also be related to a subconscious awareness of the state of the world at large.

All this should be taken with a grain of salt, as it's hard to know if making this comparison is a coping mechanism or a productive way to conceptualize climate change. But here goes nothing: Lately I've started thinking that maybe the reason why so many of us are depressed or anxious is because some part of us knows that the earth is suffering—or at least, some part of us knows that the way we are living is unsustainable, dangerous, and antithetical to our true natures.

This may sound new-agey, but think about it: More and more, science is showing that we are inextricably connected to the world around us, that there are invisible flows of energies between ourselves and all things. If our home planet is literally dying, why wouldn't we sense it on a subconscious level?

I think that for a long time, many of us have known in some parts of our minds that there is something chronically broken in our world and with the way we're living in it. Many of us believe that there's something wrong with us personally, and we've turned to religion, drugs, or other escapes. So many of us go throughout our lives feeling like there's something wrong with us—because we don't have something, or aren't happy, or because we mess up so many times, or we're failures in some sense of the word.

But could it be that humans aren't meant to live in a world where we're constantly succeeding, then expected to push ever forward, to achieve and to compete at all costs? By considering ourselves separate—and somehow entitled—to the planet that makes our existence possible, we've built a world based on competition, accumulation, and destruction—and it's killing us.

"There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people," writes Daniel Quinn in his novel Ishmael. "Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world… And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now."

There's a catharsis to realizing that you're not crazy in feeling like something is wrong with the world, with the way that we're all living, and with the way we treat each other. Realizing that some of the pain, discontent, or isolation you've felt all your life might in some way stem in part from man's homicidal treatment of the earth could maybe even mark a key turning point in the way you see yourself and others. It actually was, for me. It was a moment when I let go, stopped fixating on my own tiny world and problems, and turned my attention to other, more important, ultimately healthier things.

Joanna Macy's essay "Working Through Environmental Despair" offers similar suggestions, outlining the potential that can be found within sorrow. "Where, then, does despair fit in?" she writes. "Why is our pain for the world so important? Because these responses manifest our interconnectedness. Our feelings of social and planetary distress serve as a doorway to systemic social consciousness. To use another metaphor, they are like a 'shadow limb,'" she continues. "Just as an amputee continues to feel twinges in the severed limb, so in a sense do we experience, in anguish for homeless people or hunted whales, pain that belongs to a separated part of our body—a larger body than we thought we had, unbounded by our skin."

So here's to seeing despair not as an impediment, as it's traditionally viewed, but as a link that connects us to the rest of the world. If we see ourselves as part of a larger continuum, we can begin to liberate ourselves from the constrictions of the self and the cult of individualism, instead of viewing ourselves as part of a larger network.

Conveniently, that's exactly what we'll need to do in order to stop the worst consequences of climate change.

Image via focuspocusnow.com

Going to the Source

Admitting the problem, as the saying goes, is the first step. It doesn't end there, though; the awakening precedes the rising up. In terms of climate despair, the equivalent of medication might be activism—actively participating in movements that are directly engaged with fighting climate change. This is the single best thing one can possibly do for one's climate despair: join other people who are getting up and working towards a better world, as impossible as it may seem.

The past few years have seen a rise in climate activism groups, including Sunrise, the youth-led group that made waves for occupying Nancy Pelosi's office in 2018 and who are currently fighting for a Green New Deal. They're uniquely committed to staying hopeful, because we do have the resources and the money and the plans to stop this; all we need is the public support, which stems from hope and faith. One of their mantras is that, in their words, "We shine bright," because though times are hard, "changing the world can be a rewarding process." And hope is so much better than the alternative.

A lot of Sunrise meetings end with singing, and one of their songs draws its lyrics from Leonard Cohen's Anthem. "Ring the bells that still can ring / forget your perfect offering / there is a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in," goes the chorus.

Maybe climate change is the crack—the first sure sign that the walls we've built are falling down. Maybe it marks the dissolution of the old world and the beginning of a time when we all come together to create a better future, one based on sharing and taking only what we need, rather than amassing at the expense of others.

Maybe that will never happen. Maybe we'll create little pockets of alternative ways of life within disaster, or maybe we'll all die off, and the forests will grow back over our empty factories, and coral reefs will grow on all the streets we worked so hard to pave.

There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

Still, I am hopeful, in the faint way that I'm hopeful even when depressed, because I know I can get through it, and I know humanity has overcome huge challenges before, too. I'm hopeful that this will create a movement, one that not only pulls the earth back from the brink of destruction, but that also addresses some of the sources of the pain so many people feel.

I'm hopeful, with one caveat. Like Miley Cyrus said, I'm never bringing a kid into this already hopelessly overpopulated world. If the time comes and we're not underwater, personally I plan to adopt.

Songs For Those In Climate Change Despair open.spotify.com