Climate and Mental Health

Published in honey & lime in 2020.
You can view this publication online here.

I try hard not to imagine too far into the future. At this point it feels inevitable, and I try to push away the worry and hold onto the parts of the world that bring me joy, the ones that are still here, for the moment at least. 

Katie Palmer’s essay explicitly speaks of the acute anxiety that comes with learning about climate change, the difficulty of writing about a subject that clearly spells out our doom.

 The future of our planet is terrifying to think about. I do not yet know what our lives will look like twenty years into the future, especially for those who are already disenfranchised today: what resources we may have to give up, what creatures may one day go extinct. But as I put together this issue, the beautiful and evocative work of our contributors reminded me of something important. Perhaps the actions of one person may be ineffective on a global scale, but if all of us join our efforts together, and continue to act, speak up, and demand change, then maybe it will be enough to make a difference. This is all I can hope for.

– Excerpts from “Letter from the Editor” by Wanda Deglane in honey & lime

I can’t write poems about climate change. I tried once, in advanced poetry. During workshop, my professor asked one of my classmates what she thought of my poem, since she had been silent during the entire discussion.

“Honestly, I’m just not interested in this topic,” my classmate answered, her voice flat. 

What luxury—to not be interested, to not care, to not know. I wish I had looked at the environmental studies major at my school and thought, “That’s not for me. Next.” 

In reality, I picked my university specifically for the combined environmental studies and English major. When I was a freshman, my English professor tried to convince me to switch to being solely an English major, dropping the environmental half. 

“That’s not an option,” I told him. “I’m going to be an environmental lawyer.” 

But sometimes, I wish I had listened to him. 

In college, I loved taking environmental classes, but as I kept studying, I wasn’t so sure about environmental law anymore. I was still thinking I would move to Washington, D.C. and work on environmental policy. Or become an environmental journalist. Or an environmental textbook writer. 

I didn’t start to regret the environmental half of my major until my senior year. My first semester, I finally got into a class I had been dying to get into: climate change policy and advocacy. 

On the first day, my professor asked, “What do you think is the scariest news in climate change today?”

My classmates looked puzzled, but I raised my hand confidently. “The permafrost melting,” I said, as if the answer were obvious, like the know-it-all I was. “My climate science professor told us last year that it wouldn’t start melting for 50 years. There’s methane in it, which is way more potent than carbon dioxide. The melting permafrost will accelerate climate change, and it will be irreversible.” 

“I agree. Nice job.” My professor looked impressed. In Australia, I had taken a class explaining all the intricate details of the Earth’s climate, so I knew I would ace this class.

Except I didn’t. Not even close. 

I was only a few points away from failing my midterm, and only because my professor went back and added 0.5 points on a few answers. I saw my original failing score crossed out, replaced by another score. I passed only because my professor took pity on me.

I felt like a failure, but every time I tried to study for that test, I would spiral into a panic attack. Tears would fall uncontrollably down my face. I couldn’t catch my breath. My heart would race and my skin would sweat as if I had just finished a marathon. I felt like my chest was going to explode. I couldn’t swallow; my throat felt like it was sealed shut. I would vomit, which made me never want to eat. Sometimes, all my limbs would even go completely numb. Most terrifying of all, I felt like I was going to die right then. 

I was in a really dark place. That semester, I cried to the same professor that tried to tell me to switch to being an English major. 

“You can’t control climate change,” he told me. “You can’t stress what you can’t control.” He mirrored almost the exact same words my therapist had told me. 

As the year went on, I felt like I was getting so much better. I passed the class, barely, but I was still on track to graduate on time. I took less stressful, more enjoyable classes second semester. 

Best of all, therapy was working. I went from having multiple panic attacks daily first semester, to having almost none for the entirety of my second semester. 

But I guess climate change will always be a trigger for me. 

After graduation, I was at my Papa’s camp, nestled deep in the woods. This is the place that fostered my connection to the environment as a child, inspiring me to study it when I grew up. We all sat around the campfire, sipping plastic cups filled with mixed drinks.

Somehow, I found myself discussing climate change with three people, all biased in their own ways: someone who works in the fossil fuel industry, a dairy farmer, and a Trump supporter. 

I knew they were biased, but they thought I was too. How could I be biased, when I had nothing to sell or gain from my perspective? Didn’t they know how much I wished climate change weren’t true? 

No matter my degree, no matter what I learned, or what I said, they would have never listened to me. Ever. 

After they kept arguing with me for way too long, I started crying frustrated tears. “You’re old,” I said. “You got to get old, but you stole that from my generation. We will never get old.” 

Truth is, I don’t know what will happen to us. A huge part of me hopes the climate change deniers win. I imagine myself, 90-years-old, laughing, “You guys were right all along. I was so worried for nothing!” 

The other part of me, the one who knows all the science, can’t handle the depression and anxiety that comes with the knowledge. That’s why I have become a sort of climate change denier myself. I avoid the news. I focus on the pretty scenery nature provides. I fill my car with gas and drive to work. I forget to unplug my chargers. I don’t apply to any environmental jobs. 

Maybe one day I will be mentally strong enough to go for that law degree, or to make a difference in some other way. Maybe one day I’ll be able to at least write one decent poem about it.

Maybe one day I will be mentally strong enough to go for that law degree, or to make a difference in some other way. Maybe one day I’ll be able to at least write one decent poem about it.

Sources to look at if you suffer from climate anxiety:

Climate Anxiety Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Life

‘Eco-Anxiety’: How to Spot it and What to do About it

With Climate Change Comes Loss and “Ecological Grief”

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