Climate anxiety is real. How local grief groups combat the pain

By Jessica Wolfrom

By Jessica Wolfrom

Examiner staff writer

Sarah Jornsay-Silverberg hit an emotional wall while working in southern Mongolia. She’d been sent to the region by a Bay Area-based non-profit to help protect the nomadic community’s herding rights from destructive mining projects.

But despite her impressive resume as an environmental human rights lawyer, to the Mongolian community, Jornsay-Silverberg was a young, white woman, who looked a lot like others who’d come before offering false hope and empty promises.

“I had one of those epiphanies that was like, oh, wow it’s not about the strength of our climate policy. It’s not about the words we’re using. It’s not about making sure that we’re connected with the right politician or making sure that we passed the right bill,” she said. “We’re at a crisis of just absolute humanity, where we don’t even trust each other enough to solve problems together.”

So began what Jornsay-Silverberg called her unraveling. She grew disillusioned with the environmental movement, frustrated with the limits of the law, and fed up with hollow policies that did little to move the needle on climate.

Then in 2018, a friend sent her a link to the Good Grief Network, a 10-step program for climate anxiety, modeled loosely off the 12-steps used by Alcoholics Anonymous. She was immediately hooked, calling the process “transformative.”

As the effects of climate change continue to intensify, parching the land, fueling fires, and blanketing The City with smoke-choked air, San Franciscans are seeking outlets to channel their eco-anxiety. In response, grief groups and mental health professionals specializing in eco-distress have surfaced to help people cope with these complex emotions.

Although not yet a diagnosable condition, eco-anxiety is not an entirely new concept. The term exploded in the cultural consciousness over the past few years as the planet has sped past carbon thresholds and weather events grow more extreme.

A recent survey by Yale University found one in four Americans are “very worried” about climate change with the majority of Americans saying they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming.

It’s also become a serious focus among mental health professionals. Eco-anxiety is an umbrella term that “evokes in people a wide range of emotional states from worry, concern, anxiety, sadness, grief, anger, rage, confusion, disorientation,” said UCSF’s Dr. Robin Cooper.

But even mental health professionals are feeling strained by the torrent of bad news. “My stomach is in a knot today in the way it normally isn’t,” said Cooper, referencing the wildfires raging in California, Hurricane Ida in the South, and the flooding in New York City. “It is the overwhelming assaults that are happening from every corner.”

As the summer of heat domes and noxious air marches on, local interest in grief groups and mental health services has skyrocketed. “It’s constant,” said Jared Michaels, a San Francisco therapist and Zen priest. “I would say my last 4 out of 6 intakes were people who wanted to focus on this.”

The deluge of demand is also surfacing questions of equity and access to mental health services.

Jornsay-Silverberg, now the executive director of the Good Grief Network, is quick to acknowledge that the grief groups have attracted a mostly white, affluent crowd. Even so, such groups are generally low-cost, and many have moved online due to the pandemic.

“A silver lining of the pandemic is so much more is available now that’s not limited by location,” said Leslie Davenport, a psychotherapist, and climate psychology consultant who practices in the Bay Area and in Tacoma, Washington. “There’s a lot that people can get out of just joining and having a safe place to talk about with their experiences and share resources and not feel so alone in it.”

But for residents who have long borne the brunt of environmental degradation, there is a more immediate concern than existential dread. “People are dying,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, an environmental nonprofit that works with the Bay View Hunters Point neighborhoods.

“It’s not like ‘oh my God’ will climate wreck the world in 20 years. It’s today. My family, my loved one, my husband, just died, all these people have cancer…That eco-anxiety, it’s eco-fury. It’s eco-outrage.”

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency released new analysis showing that racial and ethnic minority communities are particularly vulnerable to the most severe impacts of climate change.

“We will all be impacted. But we will not all be impacted equitably and the same,” said Cooper, adding that “does not mean the range of emotions of the more privileged primarily white people is not legitimate.”

The challenges ahead for mental health professionals navigating this small but growing field are immense. Most therapists have not been trained to address climate-related trauma or anxiety and demand for such services continues to outpace available providers.

Cooper formed an organization called the Climate Psychiatry Alliance to encourage the American Psychiatric Association to provide climate-related education and training for its members. Others, like Bob Dopplet, a coordinator for the International Transformational Resilience Coalition, are pushing Congress to support and fund mental wellness and resilience-building initiatives.

But for now, “the need is enormous,” said Cooper. “And part of it is I don’t think we know exactly what the need will be.”

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