While many people are worried about floods, hurricanes, and wildfires caused by climate change, scientist Britt Wray, Artsci’08, is highlighting a new problem – a looming mental-health crisis caused by climate anxiety.
Dr. Wray, a post-doctoral fellow in human and planetary health at Stanford University, was part of a groundbreaking study that examined 10,000 young people (ages 16 to 25) in 10 countries and found many feel hopeless and fear for the future. In that study, 45 per cent of respondents said climate anxiety was negatively impacting their daily lives to the point they had trouble doing basic activities such as sleeping, eating, and having fun.
Dr. Wray’s new book, Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in the Age of Climate Crisis, puts a spotlight on the growing problem.
The book – a finalist for the 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction – offers advice to help people cope and transform their anxious feelings into positive actions. The Queen’s biology grad says it is important for people suffering from eco-anxiety to know they are not alone.
“Don’t try to suppress your feelings,” she says. “That will often backfire and lead to even worse health outcomes, like depression or sleep disturbances.”
For people who feel overwhelmed, Dr. Wray says there is a growing group of climate-aware therapists who normalize and understand people’s feelings of climate worry. Another option is to find a Climate Café, an informal group of people who gather to discuss their feelings about climate change, in addition to what they are doing or aspire to do about climate change.
Another coping mechanism is to realize you don’t have to become an environmental activist like Greta Thunberg in order to help. Dr. Wray says small actions – such as a teacher talking about climate change in class or a stockbroker promoting climate-friendly investments – can reduce stress by helping people feel like they are making a difference.
“The movement is wide-ranging,” says Dr. Wray. “Some people think ‘I am not an activist, so I can’t do anything.’ But anything helps.”
Dr. Wray, who spent years as a freelance science journalist, loved studying biology at Queen’s but realized she was more passionate talking about science than working in a lab. Her journalism career was sparked while she was a student volunteer at campus radio station CFRC and she changed her music show into a science program, interviewing professors and researchers.
Dr. Wray became involved in the eco-anxiety movement in 2017 when she and her husband were thinking about having a baby, and she found herself overwhelmed with anxiety and grief about what type of warming world her child would be living in.
Realizing she wasn’t the only person to have these feelings, she switched her academic career from synthetic biology to focus on the intersection of climate change and mental health. She hopes her book and research give individuals the tools to cope with their feelings.
On a larger scale, she wants to provide evidence-based research to help lobby politicians and people in power who need to understand that eco-anxiety is an escalating crisis, and that bold climate action is the most helpful intervention for addressing it.
“I want to put climate change and mental health on the map as a priority.”