Mental illness is drastically increasing at alarming rates. I’ve been reflecting a lot on this lately, as I oscillate between highs and lows in my personal mental health. This can be uncomfortable, sad, scary, and at times, completely life-altering. Of course, there are many reasons for the prevailing reality of increased mental illness in today’s day: an increase in societal pressures and subsequent exhaustion, toxic levels of social media, a dramatic increase in violence and divisive news, and much, much more. Thanks to technological advances, we feel that we are now more connected than ever before, and yet, face-to-face encounters are becoming endangered, which is surely affecting us. On a positive note, mental health is being talked about more, and the stigma surrounding mental disorders is slowly being broken down. Stigma still exists in abhorrent quantities, but I do think more people are opening up about their experiences and inspiring others to do the same.
Climate change, in addition to causing great physical harm vis-à-vis extreme weather events, is imposing a less obvious toll on the human psyche. People who have experienced the devastation of a wildfire, hurricane, or flooding event often cope in ways that reveal post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. The Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA) is calling the clinical and public health consequences of climate change a “slow-motion catastrophe in the making.” I struggle most days with intense feels about climate change. I feel anxiety, despair, grief, hopelessness, and guilt. I often feel paralyzed by the magnitude of the crisis, but sometimes I am galvanized to take serious action. I have to remind myself that my (and society’s) reaction to climate change is complicated, because people are complicated.
The increasing visibility of climate change is taking an especially obvious toll on young people. Children are being forced to grow up in a world in which we are told has less than 12 years to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid devastating and irreversible impacts of a warming world. Children are upset because they might not even be old enough to vote before 12 years is up. And bearing witness to the lack of political will, especially if you feel you have no voice, is a deeply disturbing reality to live in.
I have a very hard time reconciling between the difference in how I feel, and how (apparently) a majority of society feels about the utility of the non-renewable economy. Fossil fuels have become the symbol of a “healthy” economy. Sometimes I wonder if humans have the ability to think long-term. Fossil fuels will not last forever. Therefore, fossil fuel-dependent jobs will not last forever. Our collective mentality is becoming more and more ego (“to take over”), rather than eco (“to be equal”) in accordance with the earth and its sustainability. Why do we not understand that human survival is deeply connected to ecological survival? We rely on the environment for Every. Single. Part. Of. Our. Existence. The water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the medications we take. They are all byproducts of a healthy planet. But our systems have made the choice to systematically destroy the earth. I am so grateful for the people who work so damn hard to heal our communities and protect the earth.
Activism is really hard, dismantling work. I know so many people who have left social justice movements from burn-out, abuse (both perpetuated from inside & outside of social justice movements), institutions of oppression (again, both inside & outside), and mental illness. It is harrowing, because if even we cannot create safe, welcoming, and encouraging spaces, how can we truly expect the rest of the world to follow suit? After all, we are fighting for justice, right?
I get the urge to quit. I do. I’ve dealt with my share of harassment in spaces that were touted as safe and inclusive. I also struggle concurrently with depression and anxiety. Having both is like being scared and tired at the same time. It’s the fear of failure with no urge to be productive. It’s wanting to be alone but not wanting to be lonely. It’s craving connection and intimacy, but dreading the process. It’s caring about everything, then caring about nothing. It’s feeling everything at once, then feeling paralyzingly numb. This is what I mean when I say that I oscillate between highs and lows. Because of this, I feel incredibly compelled to tell you that you aren’t alone in your struggles. It is so important to take care of yourself first, so you can take care of others and the earth second.
My personal strategy is to only occasionally partake in the revolution. The glorification of busy is unhealthy and toxic. We are more effective as compassionate and empathetic humans if we learn to rest and take care of ourselves. Rest and reflection allows us to connect our emotions to our actions; it helps us process our grief, embody more feelings of hope, heal our past traumas, and become better allies to those around us. We’re all part of the problem until we make the conscious decision to unlearn what we’ve been taught and what’s been distilled in us (about race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) our entire lives. It takes a lot of work. It is mentally and emotionally exhausting, and it is uncomfortable to confront our privileges. None of this should be discounted. This is why I strongly believe in resting when needed. I want you to rest, not quit. Because your contribution to the world is valuable and important. What matters is what we do as a result of our unlearning.
In addition to other self-care tools (rest, medication, therapy, reading, baths, etc.)—I believe a huge part of the solution to activist burn-out and mental health challenges is getting outside for some fresh air (because time outside literally changes our brains), spending time with friends and family, and carving out a tiny bit of time every single day to take action against climate change, if you are able. This allows us to collectively find the capacity to support one another, encourage more (and stronger) action, and create healthy communities.
As ecophilosopher Joanna Macy says, “The heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing.”
Sending you so much love and support.
p.s. if you or someone you love are struggling with mental health challenges, here are some resources:
- If this is an emergency, immediately call 911 or go to your nearest emergency hospital
- Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)
- Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA)
- Kids Help Phone – Call a counsellor at 1-800-668-6868, text “CONNECT” to 6686868, or chat live with a counsellor. (Free, 24/7, confidential, anonymous, and available to children and youth 5-20 years)
- Mental Health Services Help and Support in Your Community (ementalhealth.ca)
- First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness helpline – Call a counsellor at 1-855-242-3310, or chat online (free, 24/7, languages: English, French, Cree, Ojibway, Inuktitut)
- Good Grief Network (“builds personal resilience while strengthening community ties to help combat despair, inaction, eco-anxiety, and other heavy emotions in the face of daunting systemic predicaments”)