Now We’re Talking to Therapists About Climate Anxiety
Psychologists weren’t exactly trained to counsel clients through the destruction of the planet
For the better part of a year, a young man in Melbourne had been struggling with insomnia, depression, and anxiety. He heard strange voices, stopped going to school, and contemplated suicide. As his condition worsened, he spent more time online, reading about climate change. Before long, he had convinced himself that he was personally responsible for the depletion of the earth’s water supplies. He compulsively checked the faucets at home, fearing that a leaky tap could deprive “millions of people.” By the time he was admitted to the inpatient unit at Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, he was trying not to drink water at all. “I feel guilty about it,” he explained to his psychiatrists. (After several days on antipsychotics, he conceded that the oceans would survive his eight cups a day.) His case, described in a 2008 report in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, was the first reported instance of “climate change delusion.”
It probably won’t be the last. The news about climate change has been bleak for a long time, and over the past few years, it’s become harder to ignore. In 2018, the United Nations released a panic-inducing report predicting massive heat waves, food shortages, and even, potentially, genocide by 2040. (The report was memorably illustrated in the New York Times with an apocalyptic photo of a child alone in a drought-ravaged landscape, playing with a pile of bones.) In a 2019 Gallup poll, 45% of respondents — up from 36% five years ago — predicted that global warming would seriously affect them in their lifetime. Only 20% said they didn’t worry about the environment at all.
“The destruction of the planet — what could be worse? It can cause people to freak out or go numb.”
Climate change poses a unique challenge for therapists, many of whom say they’re hearing more patients, especially younger ones, talk about their fears of a warming planet. On the one hand, worrying is a natural response to an existential threat, and it serves a purpose: It can motivate us to take action. But climate anxiety can be…