What Phoenix Heberling remembers most about the tornado is the screaming. She was 2, living in a trailer park in rural Indiana, and her father and some friends were having a party when he got a phone call.
Get out now, a tornado is headed straight for you.
In a frantic scramble, the adults ran outside. The world was eerily silent. Some of them scattered and the rest piled into a car, including Phoenix and her father. To this day, the adults’ faces stick with her. A woman clawed at her cheeks in terror, tears streaming down her face. Others screamed and cried frantically: I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.
When the tornado hit, her father dove into a ditch, clutching Phoenix to his chest. They survived.
“You’re so young that you don’t have words to define what that feeling of ‘we’re about to die’ is,” Heberling said. “You only know if you felt it, that death looming over you. That pure terror. Knowing that whatever was happening, it was beyond anything I could define or ever know. It was just so powerful.”
There was a big tree near the trailer park, her favorite tree. It seemed safe and friendly to her 2-year-old self. After the tornado, she cried when she saw its broken trunk, roots twisted up to the sky like mangled, outstretched hands.
At 27, the experience remains stamped in Heberling’s mind. In hindsight, she thinks it influenced her anxiety and depression in the face of the climate crisis, another force that to many feels profoundly intractable and terrifyingly destructive.
But this one is primarily human-caused.
Surveys have found that 47% of Americans aged 18 to 34 feel that stress related to climate change impacts their daily lives. That number is even higher for teens, at 57%. Climate anxiety is increasingly being seen as a public health issue, especially for young people and children.
There’s good reason to be anxious, experts say. In 2018, scientists warned world leaders they needed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The world is not on track to reach that goal.
As a result, scientists say extreme heat, wildfires and other disasters will likely become more frequent and destructive. Rising sea levels, civil unrest and food shortages could displace billions by 2050 if human-caused greenhouse gas emissions aren’t severely cut.
“I think younger people are generally more affected because they know they’re going to see these changes actualized in their lifetime,” said Collin Hagood, a therapist in Flagstaff who has seen the issue come up with his clients.
“It’s an anticipatory grief,” Hagood said. “I think it’s really important that we all are part of this conversation, being open about it, being expressive about it, trying to connect with one another and most importantly connect to nature so we can recognize why this is such a big deal.”
While climate grief is not the primary reason people come to see Hagood, it’s often an exacerbating factor. As climate change increasingly becomes part of the news cycle, even those who are not yet physically affected are feeling the effects mentally and it has real-world consequences.
A 7-year-old Tucson boy questioned the purpose of living in the face of the mounting crises, leaving his parents to desperately seek support for him. A Tucson mother talked with her two children about how the world may not be a fit place to have their own children. A Phoenix woman became estranged from her mother and watched her marriage nearly fall apart over the issue.
‘It’s going to have consequences’
More and more, researchers are studying the mental health implications of climate change outside the direct effects of environmental disasters fueled by global heating.
As ice melts and species suffer in the Arctic, Inuit communities are facing higher rates of suicide and addiction, in part related to these changes, research found. In the Maldives, where rising sea levels are a short-term threat, a study found that children widely experience existential anxiety. In Ghana, withered crops and “loss of beauty” driven by climate change trigger strong emotions of sadness.
In much of the U.S. and other wealthy countries, mental distress is less about the physical effects of climate change and more about uncertainty for the future.
University of Arizona researcher Sabrina Helm has made this phenomenon a priority in her research. In a study published in 2017, she found that some people experience high levels of stress, and even depression, based on their perception of the threat of global climate change.
She surveyed 342 parents of young children and identified three primary concerns: climate change’s direct effects on the individual; concern for humanity in general; and concern for nature, plants and animals.
“We can learn a bit from the literature on environmental disasters, where we see there are clear linkages with PTSD and other traumatic responses,” Helm said. “Climate change is a bit different. It’s a constant but somewhat more psychologically distant environmental change. I’m more interested in this creeping activity going on.”
The interest is somewhat personal: Helm grew up in Germany during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war was a constant worry.
“I grew up being mortally afraid of nuclear disasters,” she said. “I was convinced when I was 15 that I would probably not reach adulthood. It was constantly in the news. It was so threatening. It’s exactly what we see now with climate change.”
Helm’s most recent work has focused on how this worry affects the decision to have children. There are increasing reports that people in high-income countries question having children because of climate anxiety, but there is little empirical research. Helm wanted to fill that gap.
She conducted interviews with a sample of people in the U.S. and New Zealand between the ages of 19 and 35. Most worried that having children would only further the effects of overconsumption and overpopulation, exacerbating global heating.
“It’s heartbreaking that that is a consideration people actually have to have,” Helm said. “And if this reaches a broader level in society, it’s going to have some substantial consequences, not only on mental health.”
The pandemic as a case study
Climate change is always on Ronda Seifert’s mind. It permeates small talk about summer heat in Phoenix. Conversations about a happy retirement. Chats with family and friends about their grandchildren.
“It makes me so sad that I’m worried about having grandkids, not because I would not love to have my children have children, but because I know I will love them so much and I don’t want to watch them suffer,” Seifert said, her voice faltering as she spoke through tears. “It’s like a pretend button. I’m going to participate in these conversations like we’re on the same page when we’re not on the same page at all. It’s very alienating.”
For Seifert, 52, the coronavirus pandemic has only heightened that worry. The combination of science denial and lack of action leading to deadly harm is a microcosm of the longer-term consequences of climate change. The similarities have been difficult for her to watch.
“It’s like a sped-up version of climate change reactions,” Seifert said. “How do you help save people who won’t do what is recommended because they believe in a totally different reality even when the truth is right in front of them?”
She puts it like this: She’s on a beach with friends, family, coworkers, neighbors. The tide’s gone out, but nobody notices except for her. She doesn’t want her loved ones to panic, but she desperately wants them to get off the beach.
“I felt like everywhere — at work, with my neighbors, even with my husband — I needed to act like the tsunami’s not coming,” Seifert said. “I’m going to pretend that we’re going to talk about this great retirement in the future, or how lovely it is that you’ve got grandbabies, when in my head I’m thinking, ‘oh my God, are they going to be OK?’”
The pandemic brought an immediacy to global disaster to people around the world almost simultaneously. When it comes to climate change, that sense of urgency is much less, especially in countries like the U.S., the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
Most individuals — and government officials — are not yet directly experiencing the consequences. For many in the U.S., the worst effects of climate change will be decades down the line, making serious action hard to come by.
“COVID-19 is reminding us that there are a lot of people suffering, and that those of us who have privileges shouldn’t turn a blind eye to those who don’t,” said Paul Hirt, a historian and former professor at Arizona State University. “If you are worried about the future, you can either stick your head in the sand, get depressed and look the other way, or you roll up your sleeves and get busy trying to make sure the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen.”
Seifert refuses to stick her head in the sand, though she finds it exhausting to be surrounded by people who don’t see how urgent the issue is. It has estranged her from her mother. She and her husband attended couple’s therapy because of the tension their conflicting degrees of concern caused.
To cope, she does as much as she can at an individual level. She joined Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan climate action group. Recently, she’s found hope in regenerative agriculture, which can increase ecosystems’ resilience and sequester carbon. She started a backyard garden. She and her husband added solar panels to their home and bought an electric vehicle.
Though she once considered moving out of Phoenix because of the worsening heat, Seifert’s heart remains in the place she calls home. She grew up poor with unstable housing near 29th Avenue and Buckeye Road. She and her mother and brother bounced between homelessness and living in old rentals that couldn’t keep out the heat. Sometimes their utility bills were so high they struggled to pay them. Too often they had to choose between food and utility payments, relying on help from family or food banks.
“I know what it’s like to not be able to afford a utility bill that is going up and up and up,” Seifert said. “I want to try to think of ways to help our communities that are experiencing a greater burden.”
Still, she fluctuates “between anger and sadness and guilt and sometimes empowerment when I do something I feel makes a difference, and I’m OK for a while.”
“It’s an ongoing struggle,” Seifert said. At times, she achieves that elusive middle ground between grief for the future and joy for the present.
“Those of us who are facing this, we’re brave,” Seifert said. “Even though it’s hard and it’s scary, we refuse to turn away. I can’t do that because of my children. But I also have to find ways to enjoy the moments we have right now.”
Finding hope in activism
In March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, First Friday was bustling in downtown Phoenix. Along Roosevelt Row, music melted together from block to block. Flat Earthers set up shop next to Catholic truth vendors. Couples held hands as kids skateboarded through the crowd.
The evening was warm and joyful, a world that feels far away from that of today.
On a quieter stretch of sidewalk, a cardboard cutout of a kangaroo leaned against a fence. There were tears drawn on its face and a sign with the words “CLIMATE EMERGENCY” slung around its neck. A photo of a mother and baby koala rested against its feet. At a table, images of Australian animals were placed besides candles. People stopped and took matches from the table to light them.
The Phoenix chapter of Extinction Rebellion, a climate action group, was raising awareness about the climate crisis as unprecedented bushfires raged in Australia. The fires would kill nearly three billion animals and some ecosystems will likely never recover. The bushfires sparked intense grief in people all over the world.
Heberling, the tornado survivor, stood at the table, wearing a black dress, fishnet leggings and black platform boots. She joined Extinction Rebellion during a severe bout of depression after a trip to Germany in 2019. She had lived in the country in her early 20s, but when she returned a mere four years later, she was appalled by the changes she saw in the landscape.
“Immediately I noticed that something was wrong with the trees,” Heberling said. “They had this sickly brown yellow color. Seeing everything look like that was really jarring. I thought I was going crazy.”
But she wasn’t. In the prior two years, Germany had experienced uncommon heat and prolonged drought, putting the country’s iconic forests in danger. Since 2018, hundreds of thousands of acres of trees have died, driven by rising temperatures caused by human-caused emissions.
“I had a really, really intense emotional reaction,” Heberling said. “Not only is this place that’s so special to me going through something like this, but the whole world is, too.”
Then an event popped up on her Facebook feed: A group called Extinction Rebellion was hosting a climate strike. She decided to pull herself out of bed and join.
Young people have found solace and hope by joining the climate movement. But when the pandemic hit and climate action initiatives had to stop, many were tossed yet again into a sense of hopelessness.
“Students have been greatly impacted during the pandemic,” said Brian Mecinas, a 19-year-old organizer with Arizona Youth Climate Coalition and a sophomore at Arizona State University.
“Things may have changed in their home life, whether that be their employment, their parents’ employment, not having a quiet work environment,” Mecinas said. “And on top of that, still feeling that responsibility to deal with the climate crisis that everyone seemed to forget about for a large chunk of this pandemic.”
Mecinas tried to keep organizing, but the activism itself became overwhelming had been heavily involved since high school, organizing climate strikes and showing up at local meetings to push for action. But amid a pandemic, school and a job to support himself, it became too much. He hit a wall, falling into lethargy and depression.
“I don’t have the same motivation anymore that I had last year,” Mecinas said. The fact he couldn’t will himself to push through the lethargy only compounded his depression.
“There is a mourning that I feel for the loss that is happening, has happened, will continue to happen,” Mecinas said. “It seems like a very uphill battle to prevent any more loss and pressure leaders to do what needs to be done. At the same time, who am I to feel I can stop doing this work when I’m one of the lucky few that doesn’t have to be feeling the effects of the climate crisis right now?”
When the burnout infiltrated other aspects of his life, Mecinas realized he needed professional help.
“There’s not always a lot of space to talk about this kind of thing when there’s so much work to be done,” Mecinas said.
With the help of a therapist and psychiatrist, Mecinas is slowly regaining his energy. Heberling, too, is taking a break, but she plans to return to the movement.
“I’m realizing that the process of fighting and winning is important, but it’s also important to enjoy the process of living,” Heberling said. “That’s the hard part, knowing how to balance those two things. I guess it’s a matter of trying to learn to enjoy the simple things. Spend time with the people we care about. Take time to have fun. That’s the ideal I want to strive for.”
Mental health resources
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a mental health crisis, here are some available resources:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
- Text “HOME” to 741-741.
- Maricopa County Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 1-800-631-1314 or 602-222-9444.
- Teen Lifeline: 602-248-TEEN (8336).
- More resources are listed here: https://www.azahcccs.gov/BehavioralHealth/crisis.html
Erin Stone covers the environment for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Send her story tips and ideas at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @Erstone7.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Credit: Source link