You can blame your poor mental health on the climate crisis

With only half of the UK feeling in control of their anxiety and depression, we dissect the system of structural oppression dragging us down.

by Scarlett Westbrook
22 April 2022, 8:54am

Photography Ivan Ruberto

2022 is a scary time to be around. That could be because of the fact that 16 million people in the UK are projected to be in absolute poverty by 2023 (that’s about 1 in 4), the overhang of a seemingly endless Covid-19 pandemic, violent conflicts across the world, a rise in hate crimes or indeed the ever-present spectre of climate crisis. It comes as no surprise that these events are taking a serious toll on our mental health.

A recent study on the UK’s cost of living crisis conducted by UCL found that just 49% of people spoken to said they felt in control of their mental health; with the number of people reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression being at its highest level for 11 months. But while we are finally beginning to properly discuss mental health, what we don’t discuss enough is how that relates to (and is influenced by) poor government leadership and our climate catastrophe. The issues are obviously linked: recent research found 60% of children and young people in England said that the climate crisis is negatively impacting their mental health. It’s clear that we are in desperate need of change - but we can’t achieve that without understanding another interdependence; one of government (in)action and poor mental health.

“The combination of different oppressive structures has led to [the situation] where we are now, and the conditions we live in are making people more susceptible to poor mental health,” says Tori Tsui, a climate and mental health advocate and author of It’s Not Just You, a guide to navigating eco-anxiety. “Mental health is often regarded as something that is a failure of one’s self, when in actuality, the capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal, ableist society in which we live is a large part of why these mental health crises manifest.” Tori’s work examines how eco-anxiety isn’t just the result of a dying planet, but instead the culmination of oppressive systems and something that has been years in the making. “The climate crisis and its physical manifestation is a symptom of something so much deeper, much like how our poor mental health is a symptom of something so much deeper,” they say.

“Climate anxiety is primarily triggered by environmental destruction, but what truly causes distress is governments and structural organisations failing to act.”

Their analysis is supported by Caroline Hickman, a leading researcher into climate anxiety and climate psychology, who works at the intersection of government failure to act on social injustice and how that failure impacts our planet at large, not just socially but ecologically. “Their perpetuation of [social injustice] causes psychological problems, which are made worse by them telling us that they care - despite doing the opposite,” she explains. “This distortion of reality and denial of the hardships they’re imposing leave people in distress. This is often met by people saying turmoil must be the fault of the individual experiencing it because they can’t recognise the actual root. That’s what happens when governments say one thing and do another.”

As we’ve become more aware of climate change, the language around the issue has been individualised and tied to our personal decisions. But just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions, and amongst the 184 countries signed up to the Paris Agreement, most are failing to meet their commitment to decarbonise by 2030. While what we do can make a difference, the fact remains that the climate crisis is the product of extractive systems of capitalism and colonialism, spearheaded by elites who governments enable to destroy our planet by refusing to expropriate their power.

These dual systems of oppression are also behind global structural inequality and thus also bear the blame for the scale of mental distress that we’re seeing in society right now. We won’t see improvements in mental wellness without decolonisation and a shift to an alternative economic and political system such as a Green New Deal, which would bridge inequality instead of fuelling it like our present model of governance. As Caroline Hickman says: “climate anxiety is primarily triggered by environmental destruction, but what truly causes distress is governments and structural organisations failing to act, and it’s that abuse of power that drives it.”

Individualist rhetoric is widely used by corporations, governments and even healthcare systems to undermine the impact of structural failures on mental health, particularly in the context of climate-related distress. That can look like the eleventh biggest global emitter, BP, popularising the carbon footprint to shift blame for the climate crisis from themselves onto consumers; consequently drawing attention away from the large-scale changes we need to tackle the climate crisis. Or it can look like MPs saying that people should just get better jobs to deal with rising energy bills, and CBT being the NHS’s most delivered therapy despite its underlying premise centring on blaming systemic injustice or suffering on patients’ way of thinking.

“This is the heart of the issue: we need to dare to demand better in order to tackle the intersecting crises we are currently facing.”

The use of CBT as a default treatment despite its favouring of individual pathologisation, ever-decreasing efficacy and oversight of structural oppression isn’t the only way in which mental health services are failing to provide care in a system that’s slowly falling apart. “Current mental health services lack social nuance regarding systemic oppression,” says Tori, “and they perpetuate capitalistic behaviour of seeing people as mere commodities by acting as holding bays, but not actually addressing problems.”

“Building mental healthcare that works really demands radical imagination,” Tori continues, “because what we currently have in society does not sustain our longevity and happiness.” This is the heart of the issue: we need to dare to demand better in order to tackle the intersecting crises we are currently facing. We need to demand better climate action, better social infrastructure, better measures to combat inequality, better mental health care and a better quality of life. To demand more in just one of these areas means demanding more, collectively, for all of them; for the advancement of our society and in order to save the planet.

We will never be able to stop all of the impacts of inequality, nor will we be able to eradicate mental illness. Of course these issues, like the climate crisis, are multi-faceted and nuanced. They’re not solely the product of social injustice, nor are they solely the product of eco-anxieties. Still, by taking these steps we can make it much easier to cope and deal with these hardships — but they’re not going to happen overnight. We need to protest and organise, build community structures such as mutual aid groups and support each other (CPA have made this excellent crisis support plan template), and build towards the future we deserve together. This Earth Day, we need to reclaim the Earth, and every step we take against injustice brings us one step closer to doing that.

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mental health
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