Losing Your Mind Is a Proportionate Response to the Climate Crisis

Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light.

by Charlie Hertzog Young

22 June 2023

A firefighter cries in front of white vans with plumes of smoke from a wildfire in the background
A firefighter cries near to a wildfire that broke out in Losacio, Spain in July 2022. The fire left two dead, including a firefighter, and burned around 15,000 hectares of land. Emilio Fraile/Europa Press

Content note: suicide.

Those of us with mental health issues are often branded as being in our own world. We may seem distant, unaware of and unattached to our surroundings. We might instead have a vacant or overzealous otherworldliness. Either way, it appears to leave us unreachable. Paradoxically, though, being in our own world can actually be a result of being more connected to the outside world, rather than less. In the context of climate change, it may be fairer to describe those who fail to develop psychological symptoms as being in their own separate, anthropocentric world, inattentive to the experiences of the billions of other human and non-human beings on the planet, unaffected by looming existential catastrophe. Layers and layers of insulation, made up of civilisational narratives, perceptual blindness and physical distance, dislocate many people from climate chaos. Those whose psyches buckle upon contact with this reality are the ones deemed mad. This pathologising is a defence mechanism employed by the civilised to subjugate those whose minds stray from accepted norms. But blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light.

We use stupid models to discuss, understand and (not) treat mental health issues. Biology, particularly in a narrow neurochemical sense, is king, despite evidence that our psychological, social and ecological worlds are more useful in explaining and managing mental health challenges. This is true from low-level anxiety to the full-blown psychotic madnesses I’ve wrestled with. The material and ideological realities of economics and politics, plus how we perceive the future, matter. Climate change has been a huge driver of my own mental health issues, including a suicide attempt that led to the loss of both my legs. Yet these fundamental extrinsic factors have been washed away by the oppressive individualisation of mental health.

When talking about the climate and mental health, the catch-all “eco-anxiety” comes up quickly. But the climate crisis can easily be linked to a host of other mental health conditions, too. Depression’s an obvious one. Then there’s the fact that the instability and threat of danger that accompanies the climate crisis also happen to be the perfect conditions for post-traumatic stress disorder – even what’s become known as pre-traumatic stress disorder.

Fear and powerlessness are two major factors in reported climate-related mental health issues, especially when combined. Interestingly, eco-anger seems to prime people to move through difficult emotional and psychological states into action. Eco-depression and eco-anxiety alone can lead us to isolate ourselves, often with terrifying results. But combined with an eco-anger, guided by love, we can unlock liberatory ways of being. Reminiscent of the Martiniquais psychiatrist-philosopher Frantz Fanon’s calls in his 1961 book Wretched of the Earth for political action as a personal-systemic response to personal-systemic colonial oppression, this can have cascading, expansive ripple effects.

Climate chaos, and the dominant culture’s response to it, warp our minds even with geographical distance. Those already hit by climate impacts are seeing a greater psychological toll. This suffering is largely explained away as ‘natural’. It took a couple of years to get a deal for my book on this, Spinning Out: Climate Change, Mental Health and Fighting for a Better Future, published today, partly because people habitually misinterpreted what direct climate impacts having an effect on mental health meant. “Of course,” they’d say, “people will be sad, depressed, anxious, PTSD-addled, even psychotic and suicidal if they’ve lost their families, homes and livelihoods.” In other words, it’s normal.

There’s a subtle yet pernicious dehumanisation at work here, borne out of western colonial biomedical ways of seeing. According to this logic, if it’s natural for people in the global south to suffer psychologically – even to die – because of their environmental conditions, then exploring the potential psychological responses is pointless. What’s relevant, apparently, is material, stop-gap, uni-directional aid because these people are in extremis, so their internal worlds aren’t a priority. The mind evaporates. This is akin to American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s framing of mental states as the last thing to focus on in his theory, developed in 1943, of a hierarchy of human needs. Maslow, we should remember, refused to include the needs and lived expertise of the disabled in his work, saying it would lead to a “cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy” (a description deliciously subverted by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “crip skills” and “crip emotional intelligence” in her book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice).

If we pull this apart a bit, we can refuse to put our minds last. Rejecting mental states as brain glitches, and instead respecting them as systemically influenced embodied states, the logic of the dominant culture falls apart. We must unlearn a lot of things to arrive at better ways of seeing and being.

Vanishing away systemically-induced psychological distress is an indirect but effective way to invisibilise how fucked up our world is, ecologically and socially. Revealing this, cracking open the pathologising and othering of mental distress and swimming in alternative models of mind opens a door for us.

Climate change increases poverty, which obviously impacts people’s mental health. It creates food and water crises, which in India have been responsible for at least 60,000 recent farmer suicides; between 2019 and 2021, such suicides increased by 30%.

Conflict and natural disasters could mean over a billion climate migrants by 2050 – many of whom will invariably suffer persistent mental ill health. More than 60% of asylum seekers in the UK report extreme mental distress; they’re also the least likely to receive support. Studies suggest that the psychological impacts of natural disasters can outweigh the physical by a factor of 40 to one. Meanwhile, less than 10% of nations have a plan to address mental health-related climate impacts.

Heat waves are particularly useful illustrations of the psychological threats of the climate crisis. Hotter temperatures lead to more episodes and diagnoses of schizophrenia, mood disorders and neurotic disorders. People with bipolar disorder, like myself, are profoundly more likely to have manic episodes when the mercury shoots up. In one Australian study (most studies of this have been in western contexts), temperatures above 26.7C led to a 7.3% increase in hospital admissions for mental and behavioural disorders. In Madrid, one study found that higher temperatures led to more intimate partner violence. The most extreme instance found a city-wide hike in domestic abuse and femicide of 40% (domestic abuse is one of the largest mental health-related burdens worldwide for women of childbearing age).

In the US and Mexico, just the temperature increase caused by climate change could mean up to 40,000 additional suicides by 2050, comparable to the impact of economic recessions or the absence of suicide-prevention programmes or gun-control laws. Higher temperatures lead to more police violence, too: one experiment found that raising the temperature of a room from 21C to 27C increased officers’ tendency to fire live rounds by 65%. This is toxic soil, but soil from which collective care can grow, like green shoots forcing their way through concrete.

Dr Elaine Flores is one of a team of academics studying mental health, climate change and resilience in the global south. One of their key findings is that communities with a more embedded sense of community are better at responding to climate shocks. I’ve encountered this in New Zealand after post-tropical cyclone Gabrielle, in the UK with mutual aid groups during flooding and in Mexico with communities of care fighting fossil-fuel mega-infrastructure.

In 2004 after Sri Lanka was hit by a devastating tsunami, hundreds of western psychologists flew to the country. To their surprise, they found a profound lack of “worrying” mental-health issues. There was, however, a considerable increase in “non-specific” psychological distress. Western doctors didn’t know how to categorise this. This points to something important. Not only is mental health in the global south not prioritised by the international community, it’s also understood in western terms. Airdropping western biomedical models of psychiatric diagnostics and support into the global south has limited use. It’s potentially dangerous – exploitative, even.

“Just providing more clinics and psychiatrists won’t solve the problem,” Dr Flores tells me. “We’ve got to start contrasting the atomised mental health support on offer with social models of illness and care.” This has revolutionary implications. We need to tend new models of care, models that are adaptive and experimental enough for our era of global uncertainty and flux. One beautiful, pragmatic and joyful example of people doing this is Jennifer Uchendu and co’s SustyVibes and the Eco-Anxiety in Africa Project. Another is Dr Asma Humayun’s transformational, eminently scalable mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) program in Islamabad, which may soon be rolled out across flood-affected regions. Here in the UK, we’ve got organisations like Healing Justice LDN, Civic Square and Centric Lab. These are all vital steps towards new horizons.

Climate change means we’re already somewhere transformational. We cannot fight this hydra with individualism, we need radical imagination and expansive communities of care. Caring practices, strategies and knowledge from outside of western frameworks hold extraordinary power. But madness, too, can reveal alternative, emancipatory futures – and give us some of the tools to get there. How we use them together, safely and patiently, could help us learn to look after ourselves and each other as the world changes rapidly around us. Even in this state of constant flux, the dominant culture still tells us there is only one way to live. All the while, without the permission of the powerful, other worlds are being born.

Spinning Out is published today by Footnote Press.

Charlie Hertzog Young is a researcher and writer, focusing on climate change, mental health and new economics.

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