As the climate crisis worsens, so too does our psychological health. Globally, a growing number of people are experiencing eco-anxiety: feelings of fear, anger, and despair that stem from climate change.
But for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), a number of factors compound eco anxiety: environmental racism, political neglect, and mental health care barriers.
How then can BIPOC cope with the dual stressors of climate change and mental health?
“Eco-anxiety” is one of a variety of emotional reactions to climate change, similar to “eco-distress,” “eco-grief,” and “eco-dread” among others.
The American Psychological Association describes eco anxiety—also called climate anxiety—as “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” which may include feelings of worry, fear, guilt, despair, shame, and even hope.
Despite the clinical sound, eco anxiety is not necessarily pathological. Some experts even say that emotional reactions to climate change are rational and adaptive. But these emotions still overwhelm many.
Eco anxiety is most prevalent among young people, who are set to inherit the consequences of previous generations’ carelessness. A recent global survey found that over half of young people are very or extremely concerned about climate change. Nearly half reported that their climate-related feelings interfere with daily life and functioning.
Concomitant with young people’s eco anxiety is the feeling of betrayal by adults, especially politicians. “It’s very overwhelming to feel like you as a child are responsible for this,” says 16-year-old climate activist Rae Steeves. “And knowing at the same time that these adults would rather be doing something else.”
Steeves first joined the climate justice movement three years ago after learning about the climate crisis in class. Now, she is a leader of School Strikes for Climate Halifax, a youth-led grassroots movement that pushes adults towards radical climate action. In a recent speech before the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, Steeves criticized the “empty promises” of politicians.
There are times when the pressure—of speaking publicly, of remaining poised, and especially of getting politicians to take her seriously—overwhelms her. “For me, climate anxiety was more anxiety for the future and distrust of the people around me,” Steeves says. Talking about her feelings, especially with fellow activists, eases the stress of her work and connects her with the larger movement.
But Steeves insists that her worry and anxiety, as opposed to outright existential terror, is a function of her white privilege.
“Climate anxiety is a privilege because it implies that we’re not already facing these issues,” she says. “Not to say that it’s easy. I get very scared about the destruction of the planet and the future, but there’s been a lot of talk about that. We also need to talk about people who are experiencing these issues right now.”
The nature of a person’s eco anxiety often depends on climate change’s immediacy in their life. And that immediacy often depends on privilege.
Uncertainty fuels the fears of many. They aren’t left completely in the dark—rising temperatures and climate projections offer some foresight into what’s to come—but many still wonder how climate change will affect their day-to-day lives. The range of hypotheticals leaves people questioning what future they should plan for.
For this sect of the eco anxious, true existential threat is still years away. They don’t deny climate change, but they have the luxury of willful ignorance and evasion. They can shut off the TV when the news gets too depressing, or relocate to safer, crisis-proof cities. Blustery winters, wildfire-saturated skies, and parched landscapes are reminders of the crisis—and alarming ones too. But there is comfort to be found in the gulf between present safety and future catastrophe.
Others are not so fortunate. Among the less privileged, climate change is not a distant likelihood, but a current threat. For some people, eco anxiety comes from existential terror. And this existential terror is disproportionately felt by BIPOC.
Despite its global reach, climate change exacts unequal consequences on BIPOC mental health. For instance, research suggests that climate change worries people of color more than white Americans.
To understand the inequalities of today’s climate crisis, one must understand the historic inequalities that brought us here.
While many mark the Industrial Revolution as the beginning of human-induced climate change, some trace its origins back further to the rise of colonialism. To obtain a continuous supply of resources necessary for skyrocketing settlements and industries, colonizers instigated land seizures and forced labor, using white supremacist ideology to target and justify the destruction of nonwhite lives.
Colonialism’s goal of limitless enrichment exploited both human and ecological life. Environmental activist Elizabeth Yeampierre points to the simultaneous exploitation and destruction of natural resources, enslaved Black people, and Indigenous people under colonial rule. “With the arrival of slavery comes a repurposing of the land, chopping down of trees, disrupting water systems and other ecological systems that comes with supporting the effort to build a capitalist society and to provide resources for the privileged,” she says.
Land seizures also alienated Indigenous people from their ancestral lands and traditions. Incompatible with colonial greed and excess were Indigenous land stewardship practices that had promoted sustainable resource management and environmental resilience for millenia—such as prescribed burnings and forest cultivation.
Today, we increasingly feel the consequences of historical ecological neglect. In 2020, California lost 3 million acres of land to unprecedented wildfires—which some say were a direct result of the suppression of Indigenous knowledge.
In a piece for Global Citizen, Joe McCarthy writes that “the supercharged form of capitalism that colonialism created, in which anything could be commodified, is the foundation for the modern era’s transactional relationship to nature that has led to forests, wetlands, and marine habitats being destroyed for commercial purposes.”
Centuries of environmental degradation along racial lines have ultimately left BIPOC more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Extreme heat, for example, kills more people in the US than any other kind of extreme weather, and experts project its rise in cities. Because of historic discriminatory policies like redlining, the residents of these heat islands—and the victims of deadly heat waves—are disproportionately Black. Inequitable community development has also left these areas without the resources to offset rising temperatures, like trees, greenery, and heat-absorbing pavements and buildings.
The racial divide of climate change is a global issue too.
Wealthy countries in the Global North, especially the US, bear the most responsibility for the global burden of climate change—but the Global South suffers the most. Some experts predict that the worsening crisis will even produce a “climate apartheid,” where the world’s privileged will adapt to climate change and the poor will be abandoned.
The climate crisis is expected to magnify the already disproportionate suffering of BIPOC communities.
In recent years, climate anxiety and other mental health concerns have received increased attention from both laypeople and mental health professionals. Organizations like the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, the Good Grief Network, and The Resilient Activist offer resources to tackle eco anxiety. And the rapidly growing field of climate therapy helps to legitimize the experiences of the eco anxious while providing them with support.
Despite the positive impact of this attention, mainstream conversations tend to neglect BIPOC, instead highlighting—often privileged—experiences of climate anxiety.
“Exhaustion, anger, hope—the effects of oppression and resistance are not unique to this climate moment,” writes Sarah Jaquette Ray, a professor and author of A Field Guide to Anxiety. “What is unique is that people who had been insulated from oppression are now waking up to the prospect of their own unlivable future.”
“I don’t feel like it’s as simple as just saying that I’m feeling depressed about the climate,” says Tori Tsui, an intersectional climate activist and mental health advocate. “My mental health is made worse by living in a society which doesn’t treat human beings as anything other than commodities.”
This is not to say that white people don’t experience climate anxiety.
“What people experience and how they feel about it is very valid,” says Tori Tsui. “But we need to widen the lens of different emotional hardships that people go through and how they intersect with different issues in the world.”
Increased media coverage of climate anxiety emphasizes the severity of the climate crisis, and validates climate-related mental health issues. But most articles tend to oversimplify climate anxiety—and the climate crisis writ large—by ignoring its connection to race.
The unequal coverage of eco-anxiety follows a trend in modern environmentalism of whitewashing—ignoring BIPOC, especially climate activists, who often stand to suffer the most from the crisis. Media erasure ultimately obscures the undue burden that BIPOC shoulder.
“When I was reading the news, every single time I saw people talking about eco-anxiety, they were always centering white, upper middle class environmentalists,” says Tori Tsui.
Tsui’s experiences with eco-anxiety and the broader erasure of BIPOC voices is what inspired her forthcoming book, It’s Not Just About You. Drawing from her experiences and those of her friends, Tsui examines the interplay between climate change and mental health. The title, she says, is a “tender reminder” that the climate crisis and eco anxiety extends beyond white people in the Global North.
“It’s not just about your community,” she says. “When we’re thinking about the climate crisis, we can’t think individualistically. We need to make sure that we are addressing this at the root, and addressing the injustices that affect other communities more than our own.”
Public dialogue validates mental health struggles and encourages help-seeking behavior for climate anxiety. Endorsement, however, does not always equal access—especially for BIPOC. Cost, transportation, insurance coverage, language differences, and stigma can impede BIPOC enthusiasm for therapy.
Thankfully, the mental health field is shifting and expanding to make more room for BIPOC providers and clients. Digital resources are improving access to therapy among BIPOC. And organizations like Therapy for Black Girls and Inclusive Therapist offer directories to match clients with similarly-identifying therapists.
Outside of the therapist’s office and the Western model of psychology, BIPOC can use different strategies to take care of their mental health.
Jarid Manos finds solace in the outdoors and helps others do the same. As founder and CEO of Great Plains Restoration Council (GPRC), Manos invites people to promote their health through environmental restoration—a model that he calls Ecological Health. His interdependent approach simultaneously tackles environmental problems, as well as social issues, like recidivism.
“You can utilize this work to address certain mental health needs,” Manos says. “It leans towards not just critical thinking, but processing and stamina that leads to more resilience.”
Collective community support—a shared tenet of many BIPOC cultures—can also serve as a protective factor. Having found comfort in peer support, Tori Tsui felt inspired to create Bad Activist Collective. The organization provides a space for activists to explore new perspectives, without the pressure of perfectionism. By connecting with activists like herself, Tsui finds people that she can relate to—both in her mental health challenges and in her desire to transfigure fear into change.
“Find a way of channeling this energy so that people take action,” Tsui advises, “because I’ve noticed the majority of folks that I come across in this white construct of eco anxiety use it as a justification to be paralyzed and not do anything. Which is really dangerous.”