The Highs and Lows of an Anxious Grad Student Grappling with Eco-anxiety

Trigger warning: This article briefly discusses thoughts of self-harm.

I’ve always been a pretty anxious person, and in a strange way, anxiety has been one of the oldest and most consistent presences in my life. So, when I first learned about climate change thanks to the Disney Channel’s programming, my gut reaction was anxiety. What will happen to me and the future children I wanted to have? Will my family be okay? Will all the cute animals die? What is being done to stop this? Certainly if I turn off the lights to save electricity, even if my parents are in the room, it helps, right?

These anxious thoughts that I had around impending environmental doom are now classified as eco-anxiety, or “chronic fear of environmental doom,” as defined by the American Psychological Association. I am not alone in struggling with eco-anxiety; seventy percent of Americans are “worried” about climate change. Having studied and worked in the field of environmental studies for over four years, I am immersed in research, stories, coursework, literature, and many other media that spell out environmental doom on a daily basis. I hadn’t thought much about the long-term impacts of this daily eco-anxiety exposure until November of 2020, when I suffered an intense mental health crisis.

The social worker assigned to my case explained to me in a wonderfully millennial way, that with all the anxiety I embody and feel on a daily basis, I am always hyper aware of everything and would have made a wonderful Watcher of the Wall. Humans are biologically equipped to have a fight-or-flight response to ensure our survival as a species. However, modern civilization has rendered this behavior less useful, and as such, I am stuck with an unhelpful abundance of anxiety.

This anxiety, coupled with the fact that I am a graduate student in marine and environmental affairs learning about issues such as the widespread decline of polar bears, means that I live and work within a very stressful environment. Up until my social worker’s blunt observation, I never considered that my field of study was adding to the anxiety that had made my ability to cope day to day as a graduate student and person feel almost impossible. For instance, over the summer while in Seattle, I watched in horror as my home state of California was aflame, all while COVID-19 raged on, which really drove home the realities of climate change and a global pandemic. It was a haunting and tangible example of how my studies could manifest in my daily life.

This graphic depicts why our anxious thoughts arise. Too much of cortisol, our stress hormone, activates the fight-or-flight response in our bodies to an unhelpful level, which results in too much anxiety. My excess cortisol is what would have made me a great Watcher of the Wall if I lived in the fictional world of Game of Thrones. (Photo credit: Genetic Literacy Project)

What is Anxiety?

Generalized Anxiety Disorder affects nearly 40 million American adults, or roughly 18.1% of the population, every year. Nearly a year after COVID-19 first appeared in the U.S., rates of those struggling with mental health have skyrocketed. A CDC study found that nearly forty-one percent of participants were struggling with at least one mental health condition. Rates of suicidal ideations, substance abuse, insomnia, and suicide have all increased during COVID-19, and overall rates of psychological distress have nearly tripled from 2018.

A study conducted by Harvard researchers found that graduate students, in addition to coping with the effects of COVID-19 and quarantine, are more than three times more likely to struggle with a mental health disorder or disorders than the average American. As I’m sure most graduate students who may be reading this article can attest, the daily burden of heavy workloads, writing a thesis, capstone report, or dissertation, and trying to maintain or find funding by teaching or assisting with research while also wanting to enjoy non-academic hobbies, is exhausting. Then there’s the worry of threats to our funding due to the pandemic. We are expected to cope with a lot of stressful factors while keeping on top of our work.

Eco-anxiety has triggered a lot of conversation about how to best cope with it. The Climate Emotion Scale, pictured above, is an example of one such way activists are trying to sort through the vast scale of emotions one can experience related to eco-anxiety. (Image credit: Isaias Hernandez, @queerbrownvegan)

 

I write this not to complain about my situation or to ask for sympathy, but because I have had a lot of time to reflect upon my mental health as a graduate student during my recovery. For a while, I felt some resentment that I could not take time off from work and school like a “normal” member of the nine-to-five workforce because it would severely set back my course and thesis work, delay my graduation, and end my access to health insurance. I was very grateful to have supportive professors and bosses who worked with me to lessen my workload the last month of the previous quarter. Still, something felt very wrong about having to sit and work at a computer all day grading and writing papers when I had just been in the hospital because of my mental health less than five days prior. This is the reality of being a graduate student, or being anyone who’s healthcare is tied to their ability to work, in a country where healthcare is not a right.

Intersectional Environmentalism and Mental Health

As a cis, white woman, I realize that being an environmental studies graduate student and American citizen is much less anxiety-producing than what my BIPOC and LGBTQ+ colleagues may experience. Climate change and feelings of impending “environmental doom” disproportionately affect BIPOC communities in the U.S. Phenomena such as heat islands and food deserts are felt and experienced by communities of color at much higher rates than white communities, and eco-anxiety is no exception.

Tori Tsui, who I recently interviewed for Currents, notes that eco-anxiety has been co-opted by privileged groups who experience much less environmental harm than BIPOC communities and those with disabilities face due to climate change. In fact, not acknowledging the structural racism that underlies America’s environmental movement alienates people who aren’t white, people who aren’t cis, and people with disabilities from climate narratives and activism.

Intersectional environmental activists argue against the status quo in environmental movements and activism that fails to acknowledge its perpetuation of the status quo that harms non-white communities in the U.S. (Image credit: @aintwasted and @michstakes, as featured on Intersectional Environmentalist)

 

By contrast, intersectional environmentalism encompasses social, racial, and environmental justice, and this view is gaining a lot of momentum, particularly amongst youth activists. An example of intersectional environmentalism as it relates to mental health is the fact that Black Americans have a general mistrust of mental health care in the U.S. after centuries of historic and ongoing abuse and human rights violations by the medical community. Therefore, it is critical to understand and address these racial and social components of mental health when treating eco-anxiety in the Black community. Psychologist Dr. Jennifer Mullan employs a decolonizing, therapeutic approach for her clients, where she responds to the intersectional experiences of her patients, knowing that clients cannot begin to heal and cope with mental health issues such as eco-anxiety without addressing the systemic inequities and generational trauma that her clients experience.

Moving Forward

It has been over six weeks since my mental health crisis really took hold of me. I am working very hard to feel more like myself thanks to the unrelenting support from family and friends, access to care and treatment (a huge privilege in and of itself), and frankly, time, although I still have bad days and triggering events. As I reflect on this experience, I am now thinking about my future as a graduate student. I recently found out that I will be beginning a Ph.D. program this August to further develop my research on Indigenizing sea otter management, and I am grappling with how I can maintain my recovery and general mental health stability as I enter what will most likely be the most intense and difficult period in my time as a student.

I also write this article only a few days after the inauguration of President Joe Biden. While many Americans are rejoicing that the Trump administration is no more, there are still a lot of concerns about how effective and proactive the Biden administration will be at addressing the systemic, violent racism and social injustices felt by BIPOC communities, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities. As the climate crisis continues to worsen, anxieties and fear over what is to happen to these communities is not decreasing.

I most certainly do not have the answers to questions on how graduate students and climate activists can best cope with or even treat eco-anxiety, and as a white woman, I should not and can not be the one answering how historically disenfranchised groups in this country can best respond to eco-anxiety and anxieties around racial injustice. I do know that providing graduate students more concrete options for mental health care that go beyond access to doctors and therapists, like offering mental health leave without the threat of losing funding, would greatly ease the burdens that come with seeking mental health treatment. Asking for and accepting help is difficult enough on its own, and fear over losing financial stability or severe setbacks in course work do not make the experience any easier. But regardless of my frustrations with the system, I am very grateful to have a platform where I can talk about my experiences, because I truly believe that in order to destigmatize mental illness, we must talk openly and honestly about the good and the bad of these illnesses.

Support for Challenging Times

(The resources below were provided by the UW’s Graduate School, from the Core Programs February 5th newsletter.)

My SSP

University of Washington partners with My Student Support Program (My SSP) to give students access to real-time, confidential mental health and crisis intervention support, 24/7, and in multiple languages. There are several ways to connect:

Phone: 1.866.743.7732. If calling from outside the U.S. or Canada, dial 001.380.6578 Online: Chat with a counselor on the web or on the app (Apple App Store | Google Play)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

The LifeLine provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress and prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones.

Phone: 1.800.273.8255 (English) or 1.888.638.9454 (Spanish) or for TTY Users: Use your preferred relay service or dial 711, then 1.800.273.8255.

Online: 24/7 service. Chat with a counselor online.

SafeCampus

During these challenging times, there is potential for an increase in online harassment ranging from inappropriate comments to invasive doxing, cyberstalking, threats of violence, and hate speech. UW staff, faculty and students may be targeted because of their personal or institutional beliefs, their area research, or teaching pedagogy. This harassment can be upsetting or traumatic, but you do not have to deal with it alone. SafeCampus consultation and resources are available to you or anyone you know that has been targeted. Contact SafeCampus at 206.685.7233 or visit this web page.

General resources on how to get started with mental health care (from the Seattle Times).