Victoria Estes is trying to save the world.
The 25-year-old has spent the last year volunteering full time with the Sunrise Movement, the local chapter of a national youth-led movement to fight climate change. The group organizes marches, rallies and other forms of activism, including the December 2019 occupation of City Hall, part of its successful push for Asheville City Council to pass a climate emergency resolution.
For Estes and other members of the youth-activism organization, the consequences of inaction appear dire.
“I just feel like I want to have a future. I want what everybody wants. I want a little homestead and adopt some kids and live my life and live it well,” Estes says. “It feels like we’re really at this tipping point where I may not have a future.”
And, judging by recent scientific studies and governmental reports, there’s plenty of justification for Estes’ concern. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in 2018 that Earth’s inhabitants have just 12 years to change course on environmental destruction or face irreparable damage from global warming. The 24-hour news cycle provides a constant barrage of devastating findings — from new species going extinct to vast destruction from hurricanes and wildfires.
For activists like Estes, environmental scientists and others, confronting the existential threat of climate change is taking an increasing toll on their mental health and well-being.
Dubbed “eco-anxiety” or “climate anxiety”, the mental health condition is defined by a persistent worry about the impacts of climate change and can generate a myriad of emotions, including fear, stress, anger, guilt and shame. Some people, like Estes, feel as if they’re carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.
“I feel like this responsibility is on me. It’s on everybody, but I specifically carry it a lot. I know I do,” says Estes. “I want to be an organizer so I can spend all of my time trying to fix what has happened. I just feel like if I don’t do that, I’m not doing enough and that the world is going to end. That’s what the anxiety feels like.”
World on fire
Though eco-anxiety isn’t yet an official clinical mental health diagnosis, area counselors say it’s becoming more common.
“Eco-anxiety was not even something that I was aware of until the last few years. But I’ve just been seeing more and more of it in my practice and seeing more and more people where that’s their primary concern,” notes Jackie Sullivan, an Asheville-based licensed clinical social worker.
Climate anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways. Because environmental issues tend to happen on a large scale and are beyond what an individual can change, people may feel overwhelmed or out of control, says Sullivan. Some people may be hyperfocused on their own daily behaviors, equating choices like driving a car or consuming anything that’s not recyclable or ethically sourced with global environmental destruction.
While reducing one’s carbon footprint is a good goal, it’s also important to be realistic and avoid assigning blame to oneself or others, Sullivan advises.
“I also see a lot of people really struggle with shame around their own actions. You know when you can’t control something, you tend to really focus on what you can control,” she notes. “Sometimes people can really focus on feeling like they have to be perfect. I think it’s superimportant for people to be compassionate with themselves.”
But that’s easier said than done, says Estes. Even taking time off can feel selfish or spark fears about complacency.
“You can feel kind of guilty for doing that, because there’s always events happening and things going on that need more people to be there to help. It’s terrible,” she says. “I get a lot of burnout. There are definitely days where I don’t do anything, and I just cry.”
Bridging the generational gap
The Rev. Scott Hardin-Nieri, director of the Creation Care Alliance of Western North Carolina, says that in addition to anxiety and stress, emotions connected to climate change can include a profound sense of grief and loss over the destruction of the natural world.
Like anxiety, grief can manifest in a variety of ways and impact generations differently. Younger people with more years ahead of them may experience eco-anxiety and grief as fear or as secondary emotions like outrage or resentment.
“Our younger generation’s anxiety has an element of anger to it,” Hardin-Nieri notes. “There’s an anger in that the previous generations neglected responsibilities to take care of the Earth. There’s also a sense of frustration. I think that’s an expression of grief and anxiety.”
Older generations, on the other hand, may feel shame or guilt for not having done more to preserve the Earth. Parents or grandparents can regret leaving their children or grandchildren a world that is experiencing the effects of a warming climate.
For Asheville resident Roger Helm, who has spent a lifetime working in environmental services, eco-grief and anxiety have persisted throughout his career.
Helm worked stints in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where he investigated the impacts of oil spills and releases of chemicals from federal Superfund sites on birds and endangered species, and with the U.S. Department of Justice, where he pressed corporations to pay for environmental restoration.
“Given my professional career, I’ve dealt a lot with eco-grief,” says Helm, 67. “I think the vast majority of people who go into this type of field feel wonder and excitement and awe about the natural world. And therefore, you care about it and you want to do something to help it and maintain it. But it’s been tough. I think it’s gotten only worse in terms of the challenge.”
Helm now works as an instructor on global climate change at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville. The teaching opportunity has required him to take an even deeper dive into the subject of environmental degradation — and the findings have not been optimistic.
“It is not a pretty issue. It’s not full of a lot of hope. It’s not full of a lot of ‘Everythings going to be fine here,’” he says. “And so as we sort of come to grips with that reality, it’s like ‘Now what?’”
Helm also notes that the overlapping environmental and social crises that younger generations are facing present additional and dire challenges. “What younger generations are facing is really tough,” he says. “I feel a real obligation, a responsibility, to give back.”
Hardin-Nieri says eco-anxiety and grief have become a topic of concern among his colleagues and congregation. When environmentally focused volunteer opportunities weren’t helping people’s emotional states, he decided to try another approach.
Hardin-Nieri started collaborating with mental health professionals and other faith leaders to craft the Eco-Grief Circle, a seven-week course in which participants are guided through emotional responses to climate change. The 90-minute meetings, which have been held virtually during the pandemic, have offered a chance for people of all ages, races, genders and backgrounds to express and process their feelings of grief, anxiety, anger and more with support and insight from fellow participants and faith leaders.
“What we’re trying to do is create space that requires a little courage and is also safe for people to express this anxiety, this sadness, this anger at themselves or other generations,” Hardin-Nieri explains.
Helm was among the first participants in the inaugural Eco-Grief Circle held last summer. He says that the ability to speak with like-minded people who recognize the challenge of climate change activism has helped him stay engaged with the difficult work.
“I want to be able to continue to have enough hope and not have my well of hope eviscerated, so that I can continue to take action. Because in action, I find the most hope,” reflects Helm.
Since its inception last June, the Eco-Grief Circles have served 75 participants over five cohorts. Creation Care Alliance will offer another seven-week circle beginning in May.
Keep on keeping on
Those experiencing eco-anxiety should make time for making meaningful connections to the Earth by volunteering or getting outside to enjoy the beauty and wonder of the natural world, says social worker Sullivan.
She also says that it’s important to share thoughts and feelings with other people and to seek mental health professionals when feeling stuck. Simply knowing and naming the emotions around environmental anxiety and grief can also help in managing feelings of hopelessness and isolation.
“It can be so healing for people to have a name for something that they’re experiencing. It just makes so much sense,” Sullivan says.
For Estes, fellow climate activists and nature lovers provide support and solidarity when the news is grim and stress levels are high.
“If there’s one thing I would want people to know, it’s that community helps so much. Just being around people and speaking your truth and living your truth and hopefully you find people that do the same thing. Sunrise was that for me, and that helped me more than anything,” Estes says. “Community is the answer.”