On Sunday, the West Coast was up in flames as wildfire evacuation orders spread around Osoyoos, B.C.—the latest in a series of historic wildfires that have engulfed the nation. On the same day, at the other end of the country, three months’ worth of rain pummelled Nova Scotia, flooding homes, destroying bridges and claiming at least four lives.
In a recent study, roughly 78 per cent of Canadians ages 16 to 25 reported that climate change affects their overall mental health, and at least 56 per cent feel powerless, sad and afraid. Climate therapy is an emerging practice that treats the psychological toll that comes with global warming—and Jared Knoll, a Saskatchewan-based therapist at Heartfire Medicine, says it’s a vital way to manage the daily distress caused by forecasts of environmental doom. He has treated farmers, activists and students whose lives have been upended by climate change. “Almost everyone experiences some aspect of it,” he says. Here, Knoll explains the aims of climate therapy and how to cope when it feels like the world is ending.
The whole idea of climate therapy is pretty new. How do you define it?
There’s a term that’s important to understand: solastalgia, coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht. It refers to the feeling of homesickness when you’re at home. What that means in the context of climate therapy is the experience of feeling homesick for our planet, or our environment, while we exist within it. That feeling of loss can manifest as grief or anxiety, and it can affect depression. Climate therapy tries to address that experience with talk therapy and other methods of therapy.
One of the clients I sit with is a third-generation farmer who has tilled the same soil as their ancestors for decades. They have discussed how climate change has already disrupted the seasons, predictability and agricultural practices in their life, as extreme weather events like unseasonal droughts and floods have become the new normal. This has resulted in constant anxiety for the survival of crops, and the understandable fear of losing not only their livelihood, but the family legacy that has been a source of purpose their whole life. They’ve discussed a constant sense of grief for the place they’ve always known as home, which they are slowly but surely losing.
I’ve heard of another term: eco-anxiety, which can be a debilitating reaction to climate change.
If we start with anxiety itself, that’s a natural human response to danger and threat. It’s the constant or frequent experience of vigilance, of hyper-arousal, of being extra attentive and alert to the possibility that things will go badly. Often that comes from a lifetime of learning that things will go badly. So in the context of eco-anxiety and climate dread, the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 told us that wildfires are expected to get worse by about 60 to 65 per cent year-to-year. If the skies are smoky, if we’re experiencing those direct, unignorable impacts, then that’s a constant reminder of danger.
How do climate-related grief and eco-anxiety manifest in people’s lives?
That farmer I mentioned has experienced panic attacks brought on by weather reports. I have heard clients describe low-level dread during their commutes to work brought on by the emissions from idling vehicles. They’ve had depressive paralysis because they biked to our therapy session and had to stop to have a coughing fit because of the smoke from wildfires. One client reported suicidal ideation from the incremental shame and guilt of every online purchase they’ve made.
I think there’s a lot more climate therapy going on than people realize. We don’t get a lot of people that come in seeking help specifically for eco-anxiety, but almost everyone experiences some aspect of it.
Wildfires and floods have reached historic levels of destruction this summer. Have you witnessed any emotional and psychological fallout from these events in your clinic?
Clients who live in the North have experienced a great deal of psycho-emotional impact from the wildfires. Children unable to play outdoors and are stuck inside, for example, are experiencing more adverse effects. People with existing health issues—which are already disproportionately high in Northern communities due to intersectional struggles—are struggling with compounding emotional effects on top of physical ones, such as respiratory distress. They’re also unable to manage and reduce stress with things like outdoor physical activities.
More broadly, many of our clients have brought up the frequent weather forecast of “smoke” as foreboding and ominous for what the future years will bring for their health, safety and well-being.
How do you treat those climate-related emotions? Is your approach for eco-anxiety different from how you might help patients with other types of anxiety?
Climate anxiety is a systemic threat: an individual can’t really do anything about it on their own. Sometimes, climate therapy can just be sharing and validating anger—the anger that a young person might feel at their parents or the older generation for their lack of action. We can make ourselves feel better. We can go outside and appreciate nature, we can focus on gratitude.
I’m not a diagnostic therapist, so I don’t pathologize or give out prescriptions. With eco-anxiety, people feel like they don’t have power, and it can also be accompanied by guilt. That’s another area where eco-anxiety is unique. People hear, “Worried about the environment? Change out your lightbulbs, bike to work, don’t order online, don’t eat meat.” They’re told they have the individual power to make these changes in their lives, and then, inevitably, that leads them to feel self-critical and guilty.
It’s okay to have a panic attack; it’s okay to be paralyzed by grief; it’s okay to feel consumed by dread every day. It’s horrible, it sucks, it may be absolutely unbearable, but they aren’t wrong feelings, are they? Climate change and ecological degradation are sources of danger and threat to the safety and well-being of individuals, families and communities all around us. They are natural of anxiety, grief and other difficult or painful emotions.
What kind of training should therapists get to treat patients with eco-anxiety or climate-related grief?
I trained as a social worker at the University of Victoria, where, fortunately, climate and environmental causes of anxiety are embraced and understood. That is uncommon, though. Depending on what someone’s training is and where they trained, they might not be well-equipped to look at the broader systemic factors. I think we need to start with how mental health professionals are trained to approach all forms of emotional experience, and to destigmatize distress.
Are you personally affected by eco-anxiety?
I’m a millennial knocking on 40 years old. I have many privileges of the age I am—climate change will not absolutely deprive me of a future. But personal legacy has always been on my mind. Climate change has affected whether my partner and I want to have children or not—we are revisiting the subject in five years. It will impact all of our major choices to invest in what could come down the line.
How do you cope with those feelings?
Nature can help a lot. We experience eco-anxiety and eco-grief partly from a sense of loss when we see animals going extinct, plants going extinct, loss of biodiversity. That makes us feel isolated and separated from our home, so something that’s really accessible and immediately available to many people is to go out into nature. Take a walk in the park, put your bare feet on the grass, sit by a lake or a river and appreciate what we still have. Gratitude is often the enemy of anxiety and grief and hopelessness.
Another thing that can counter climate anxiety and eco-grief is a sense of responsibility: we are the only ones who are going to take care of this land for others. We should be intentional and aware of how the life we live affects the land, how the people we vote for and corporations we support affect the land. I’m not telling people what they should do—just to be aware of what they’re doing with their day-to-day actions.
So if somebody’s experiencing eco-anxiety or climate-related worries, there’s a possibility for them to convert their anxiety and grief into action and community connection.
Yes, that’s a wonderful way of interpreting it. If we’re talking about the cure, it’s action and community solidarity. Especially with guilt, which is a useful thing—it has a purpose in our lives. Guilt helps us understand what we want to do and what we wish we could be doing differently. If we can mobilize these feelings, we can let go of our guilt, and we can replace that powerlessness with action.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.