As climate deteriorates, environmentalists grapple with activism’s mental toll



Growing up in the ’90s in Johnson County, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, I had a friend, Kevin Aaron, who was a dedicated environmentalist.

To outsiders, Kevin seemed like a laid-back punk-rock music fan with a dry, slightly mischievous sense of humor, but those of us who knew him best saw his passion for sustainability blossom in the city. high school.

In his barbecue-obsessed part of the country, he has become the rare vegetarian, driven by the damage to the environment caused by large-scale meat production. As he grew into a young man, he eagerly researched and then embraced alternative practices – like driving a hybrid car – that he said could reduce carbon emissions, if only in small steps.

In the early 2000s, Kevin was living in the Bay Area preparing for a career in climate advocacy, enrolling in a master’s program in urban planning and land use planning while studying for a law degree.

During his graduate studies, he was overcome with a sense of hopelessness in the face of the climate. He committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 27. Kevin lived with the feeling that his efforts – combined with those of other environmental activists – would simply not be enough to turn the tide of global warming. This added to the depression he was already struggling with, said his mother, Sami Aaron.

Environmental concerns can motivate but also overwhelm people. A September 2020 poll showed that more than half of adults in the United States were concerned about how climate change is affecting their mental health. And nearly 40% of Generation Z Americans surveyed, born after 1996, said tackling climate change was their top personal concern.

The loss of Kevin remains a shock to me and to those who cared about him, especially his mother, who became more and more involved in the defense of the environment.

Aaron often looks to nature for comfort, and she chose a former Superfund site in Olathe, Kansas that has been converted into a flower-filled sanctuary for us to talk about her son. She said that the deeper Kevin got involved in environmental activism, the more pessimistic his thinking about the future became – his mind and mood were overwhelmed with hopeless thoughts, like an invasive species.

“There was a little seed that was planted where he couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said.

After Kevin’s death, Aaron found solace in yoga and meditation, but continued to view his grief as a private struggle – until a few years ago, when she met environmentalists in the Flint Hills. from Kansas who were also struggling with mental health issues.

Aaron wanted to teach them the coping strategies she learned after her son’s death, so she started a Kansas City-based nonprofit, The Resilient Activist. The organization’s website explains that Kevin’s death occurred “when eco-anxiety (fear for the ecology of the planet) and solastalgia (grief over the loss of beloved places in nature) combined with his own inner demons and he committed suicide “. The Resilient Activist offers mental health resources, community development programs, counseling, and other psychological resources for the environmental community.

“We need activists who have the resilience to walk with us through these difficult times,” said Aaron. “That’s what I wanted to give. It’s like, which would have helped him and others like him.”

In eastern Kansas, the college town of Lawrence is steeped in environmental activism, and on August 31, dozens of protesters rallied ahead of a town meeting, chanting slogans and carrying signs: “Hurry up !” As evening rush hour traffic roared, activists called on Lawrence’s leaders to meet their sustainability commitments.

Many of the protesters were students from the University of Kansas, such as Marc Veloz. He moved to Lawrence from Texas, where he worried about how the flooding was disproportionately affecting communities of color in Dallas. He said participating in local activism is helping him through what he calls “dark days.”

“There are those days when I just have to build on the little wins we’ve had to keep me going,” said Veloz. “Because I know that being in this space of despair and anger and sadness is not sustainable.”

Another student, Kai Hamilton, grew up in the farming town of Hesston, Kansas. She recalled that even though her neighbors suffered from drought year after year, the words “climate change” were never spoken out loud.

“I have vivid memories of being alone in my room in high school and being so upset and deeply sad about my lack of control over it and also the lack of action in the world,” Hamilton said.

Another protester, Agustina Carvallo Vazquez, came to KU from Paraguay, where she said she witnessed destructive and exploitative farming practices. She planned to study economics and music, but began to focus on environmental activism after becoming frustrated with the inaction she found in the United States.

Some anxiety is a natural response to climate change, said Susan Clayton, professor of psychology at the College of Wooster and a board member of the American Psychological Association. She said getting involved in activism or with environmental groups can help ease feelings of helplessness, but, ironically, advocacy carries an added risk of stress – sometimes leading to a diagnosis of mental illness.

Clayton said anxiety crosses the line to become a real concern when it causes activists to turn away or abandon the issue.

“We have to find that middle ground, where we can accept that there are really serious things going on, but that doesn’t lead us to desperation,” Clayton said.

For decades, however, many environmentalists have refused to prioritize their own mental health.

In 2018, Greenpeace International marked a turning point by launching a major study into why so many of its activists themselves were working beyond their healthy limits. Agustin Maggio, campaign manager for Greenpeace, explains that many volunteers and local leaders have embraced a kind of “martyr culture”.

“Running out is almost like a badge of honor,” said Maggio.

Greenpeace and other leading environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have started urging volunteers and staff to take breaks, unplug or even limit the scope of their activism for mental health reasons.

Ward Lyles, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Kansas and an environmental activist since the 1990s, said he has changed the way he talks about climate with students.

“When I first started I thought it was my job to scare people into taking action,” Lyles said.

Now, Lyles said, he recognizes that students come into his classes already terrified of what’s going on on the planet – and desperate to do something about it. In the classroom, Lyles welcomes discussions about environmental anxiety and grief, so that emerging activists understand that they are not the only ones with these feelings.

“In the classes where you recognize it’s hard – it’s hard work to do, but we’re here to support each other – so it’s really amazing to see the students come together and discuss the finding solutions, ”Lyles said.

During the pandemic, Sami Aaron led yoga and meditation to help activists relax and reduce the negative and narrow thought patterns that fuel anxiety and depression. Achieving a sustainable future, Aaron explained, will require people to remain optimistic and open to new possibilities.

The goal is “to get you out of this fight or flight mode,” she said. “So you are now in a place where you have different ways of thinking. You have all the other options as to what can happen and what you can do. “

This story is the result of a partnership that includes NPR, KCUR and KHN.

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