As climate worsens, environmentalists grapple with the mental toll of activism | Lifestyle
Growing up in suburban Kansas City in the 1990s in Johnson County, Kansas, I had a friend, Kevin Aaron, who was a dedicated environmentalist.
To strangers, Kevin seemed like a laid-back punk rock music fan with a dry and slightly mischievous sense of humor, but those of us who knew him best saw his passion for sustainability blossom during high school.
In his barbecue-obsessed part of the country, he became the rare vegetarian, fueled by the environmental damage from large-scale meat production. As a young man, he researched diligently and then adopted alternative practices – like driving a hybrid car – that he thought could reduce CO2 emissions, if only through tiny measures.
Kevin lived in the Bay Area in the early 2000s preparing for a career in climate advocacy. While studying law, he enrolled for a master’s degree in urban and regional planning.
During his studies he felt hopeless about the climate. He died of suicide in 2003 at the age of 27. Kevin had lived with the feeling that his efforts, combined with those of other environmental activists, would simply not be enough to turn the tide on global warming. It added to the depression he was already struggling with, said his mother Sami Aaron.
Environmental concerns can motivate people, but they can also overwhelm them. Polls from September 2020 showed that more than half of adults in the United States were concerned about how climate change is affecting their mental health. And nearly 40% of Gen Z Americans surveyed who were born after 1996 said fighting climate change is their number one personal concern.
The loss of Kevin remains a shock to me and to others who have taken care of him – especially his mother, who is increasingly committed to protecting the environment.
Often turning to nature for comfort, Aaron chose a former Superfund location in Olathe, Kansas that has been converted into a flower-filled sanctuary as the place we can talk about her son. She said the more Kevin became involved in environmental activism, the more pessimistic his thinking about the future became – his mind and mood were overwhelmed by desperate thoughts, like an invasive species.
“There was a little seed that was planted where it couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said.
After Kevin’s death, Aaron found solace in yoga and meditation, but continued to view her grief as a private struggle – until a few years ago she met some environmentalists in the Flint Hills of Kansas who were also struggling with mental health problems.
Aaron wanted to teach them the coping skills she’d learned after her son died, so she started a Kansas City-based nonprofit called Resilient Activist. The organization’s website explains that Kevin’s death came “when eco-anxiety (fear for the ecology of the planet) and solastalgia (grief over the loss of beloved places in nature) combined with his own inner demons and he did that Took life. The Resilient Activist provides mental health resources, community building programs, counseling, and other psychological resources for the environmental community.
“We need activists who have the resilience to see us through these troubled times,” said Aaron. “I wanted to give that. It’s like what would have helped him and others like him. “
In eastern Kansas, the college town of Lawrence is rife with environmental activism, and on August 31, dozens of protesters gathered before a town meeting began, shouting slogans and carrying signs, “Time is running out!” As the evening rush hour passed, activists urged them Leader Lawrence in keeping their sustainability pledges.
Many of the protesters were University of Kansas students, such as Marc Veloz. He moved to Lawrence from Texas, where he became concerned about how flooding was disproportionately affecting colored communities in Dallas. He said participating in local activism helps him through what he calls “dark days”.
“There are these days when I just have to rely on the small wins we had to keep me going,” said Veloz. “Because I know that being in this room of despair, anger and sadness is unsustainable.”
Another student, Kai Hamilton, grew up in the farming town of Hesston, Kansas. She recalled that the words “climate change” were never spoken out loud, even though her neighbors suffered from droughts year after year.
“I have vivid memories of being alone in my room in high school, just so overwhelmed and deeply saddened, that I am in control of it and also the lack of action in the world,” said Hamilton.
Another protester, Agustina Carvallo Vazquez, came to KU from Paraguay where she said she witnessed destructive and exploitative agricultural practices. She planned to study economics and music, but turned her focus on environmental activism after becoming frustrated with the inaction she found in the United States.
Some levels of fear are a natural response to climate change, said Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster and a board member of the American Psychological Association. She said engaging in activism or environmental groups can help alleviate feelings of helplessness, but paradoxically advocacy carries the risk of added stress – sometimes leading to a diagnosis of mental illness.
Clayton said that fear crosses the line and becomes a real concern when it causes activists to turn away or give up the problem.
“We have to find common ground on which to accept that some really serious things are happening, but that doesn’t make us desperate,” said Clayton.
However, many environmentalists have refused for decades to prioritize their own mental health.
In 2018, Greenpeace International signaled change when it launched a major study on why so many of its activists were working on their healthy borders. Agustin Maggio, campaign manager at Greenpeace, explains that many local volunteers and leaders have fallen in love with a kind of “martyr culture”.
“Burning yourself out is almost like a badge of honor,” said Maggio.
Greenpeace and other environmental leaders, including the Sierra Club, have begun urging volunteers and staff to take breaks, unplug them, or even limit their mental health activism.
Ward Lyles, associate professor of urban planning at the University of Kansas and an environmental activist since the 1990s, said he changed the way he speaks to students about the climate.
“When I started, I thought it was my job to get people to act,” Lyles said.
Now, Lyles said, he realizes that the students are entering his classes already scared of what’s happening to the planet – and desperately trying to do something about it. In class, Lyle welcomes discussions about environmental fears and grief, so that aspiring activists can understand that they are not alone with these feelings.
“In classes where you acknowledge that this is difficult – that’s hard work, but we’re here to support one another – then it’s really amazing to see students come together and talk about finding solutions,” said Lyles.
During the pandemic, Sami Aaron led yoga and meditations to help activists relax and reduce tight, negative thought patterns that fuel anxiety and depression. To achieve a sustainable future, according to Aaron, people need to remain optimistic and open to new opportunities.
The goal is “to get you out of this fight-or-flight mode,” she said. “So that you are now in a place where you have very different mindsets. You have all the other options for what can happen and what you can do. “
(This story comes from a partnership that includes NPR, KCUR, and KHN.)
(KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health topics. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a not-for-profit organization that provides health information to the nation.)
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