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Expert warns on the perils of climate anxiety

Published on 05/11/2021

Climate change is harming people’s mental wellbeing and the impact will only get worse, warned psychologist Garret Barnwell, who authored a report on the subject.

limate change is harming people’s mental wellbeing and the impact will only get worse, warned psychologist Garret Barnwell, who authored a report on the subject.

Barnwell has for years worked with communities struggling with environmental problems, said people in poorer countries like South Africa where inequalities are vast are even more vulnerable to climate anxiety.

His report, “The Psychological Mental Health Consequences of Climate Change in South Africa” was released in September.

AFP sat down with Barnwell in the Wilds Nature Reserve in the middle of an upmarket Johannesburg suburb to speak about climate anxiety.

His answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.

– What is climate anxiety? –
limate anxiety came to prominence in the last couple of years. This term has been very useful especially to gain attention for anger, anxiety, a sense of grief, fear or worry.

However, it’s a lot more complicated in the Global South… we live in places where there are multiple social injustices, it’s not only climate change that is experienced.

(It can be) an amplifier of a lot of other social injustices, so in that sense, we do need to think about how it’s being framed.

– What are the psychological impacts of climate change? –

First the direct impacts, like natural disasters, the second (is) witnessing someone else suffering.

The anticipation of something happening, this is where climate anxiety comes in.

These things aren’t separate, so they actually accumulate across the lifespan.

Most people will experience several different things; they’ll witness other people suffering, they might go through their own kind of troubles and anticipate a future that may not be viable to some.

– How do young people experience climate change? –

(They) are experiencing multiple adverse events, they’re not only psychological, but they’re actually material events that have dramatic impacts on daily living.

For instance, the floods in Beira in Mozambique, we’ve also had historical droughts in South Africa, Cape Town was one of the first cities in the world to have been threatened to go completely dry.

These events in the Global South, they’re not novel and have dramatic impacts on everyone.

Whether it be a natural disaster or storm surges, you have kids’ schools being interrupted, anxieties of routine being broken.

They may feel anxious, hopeless or despairing, some may not know what’s going on but live in a life with relative deprivation, compared to before.

(Climate change could exacerbate) already existing wounds in society, especially in a country like South Africa has a higher level of inequality.

It’s going to create major insecurity in daily living.

– How is this anxiety is related to government inaction? –

It’s knowing that the adult world isn’t doing what is necessary to avert the crisis.

Young people are really reliant on the adult world for care, for making the right decisions, (so) when you see the adult world not doing something, that creates a sense of institutional betrayal.

– How do you counsel youth with such anxieties?

We need to be careful of framing it as a mental illness, (but take the) anxiety as a warning bell.

Some people do experience significant distress, which can result in destructive behaviour, excessive alcohol use or self-harm, and suicide.

The solution isn’t necessarily therapy, although therapy can be supportive to the process, we need political action.

I think often there is a ‘paternalisation’ that takes place, where we think kids can’t handle the information, but in fact, they’re very aware of it.

If we mirror the kind of actions that can take place, connecting to various things in one city or town or village, that is kind of pro-environmental, not only validating people’s feelings in what we say but also in what we do.