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Climate Anxiety Disorder? It’s More Likely Than You Think

By Jordan A. Sanchez, Contributing Opinion Writer
Jordan A. Sanchez ’24 is a Physics concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column “Everyday Environmentalist” appears on alternate Fridays.

The climate crisis creates a unique sense of dread. It feels like you’re doing nothing to help, and everything to make things worse without even knowing. Environmental destruction is so ingrained in our way of life — driving to work, going shopping — that it feels impossible to do anything right. For example, if you’ve purchased fast fashion in the past, you might want to donate it to a charity or thrift store and replace it with a more ethically-made garment. But even in donating this fast fashion piece, it’s still likely to end up in a landfill.

There seems to be no room for error on the tightrope of sustainability, and when you slip up, your attempts to course correct only make things worse. This, in addition to the urgent messaging about natural disasters and other existential threats that are as real as they are terrifying, generates an underlying (occasionally overlying) current of panic without direction.

Despite how little we discuss the climate — compared to, say, comping clubs, tight deadlines, internship applications, lack of sleep — in our day-to-day lives on campus, the majority of young people struggle with some form of eco-anxiety, distress related to climate change and its effects.

I first heard of eco-anxiety at an event at the Peabody Essex Museum. Kelsey Hudson, a climate psychologist at Boston University, flipped through a presentation about mental health and climate change. In many ways, I related to it. I was worried about the future that felt completely out of my hands. I felt guilty, overwhelmed, powerless, and stressed.

None of these feelings are new to Harvard students, but the climate crisis takes a different kind of emotional toll on a person. Completing assignments, comping clubs, and applying to internships are at least partially within our control. We can’t determine the deadlines, but we can decide when we work and for how long, for example. And aside from group projects, we mostly have to rely on ourselves. As students, we’ve become masters of self-sufficiency. For better or worse, pressure breeds isolation and independence. Whether we sink or swim becomes entirely dependent on how hard we kick (no floaties to be found).

Conditioned into self-reliance, we struggle to see change as a communal effort where commitment is required by all. Instead, it’s an individual offense. Everyone is carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders individually. The feelings caused by this are felt by all but acknowledged by no one, leaving young people at school and in the world to paddle frantically underwater as they seemingly coast with ease.

In addition to the constant, underlying worries that young people struggle with, there’s the added element of the lingering effects of climate-induced disasters. Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and other events take a toll on anyone’s mental wellness, leading to trauma, shock, depression, and more.

But there is hope.

Although a little late, youth mental health is finally being discussed on a national level. President Joe Biden has committed millions of dollars to address the mental health crisis, encouraging schools to increase access to services in schools.

Even if many of us (myself included) haven’t had the best experience with Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services, something is better than nothing. Speaking to a therapist, counselor, or even a trusted friend about your concerns with the climate crisis is a good start. What’s even more effective is doing something to regain the agency that climate change takes away. Make lifestyle changes that empower you to make a difference, creating a happier mind and planet.

Whether you’re a seasoned organizer or an everyday environmentalist, the threat climate change poses to our mental health is real and true. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to completely shake the feeling of dread and uncertainty — it’s natural in response to an actual threat — but it’s important to use these emotions as motivation.

We’re not alone in these feelings, but we’re not alone in creating solutions either.

Jordan A. Sanchez ’24 is a Physics concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column “Everyday Environmentalist” appears on alternate Fridays.

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