Whenever parents ask me what they can do to fight climate change, I always suggest one thing first: find a climate community.
If you do nothing else, I tell them, find other people who care about climate change and join them. Caring about climate change can be lonely for parents who aren’t hearing conversations about climate change in their social circles (and research suggests that across the US, only 35% of us talk about climate change even occasionally). Taking climate action in community can help combat feelings of isolation and amplify the impact of our activism. And the findings of a new study from researchers at Yale and Suffolk University affirm the benefits of collective climate activism for our mental health.
In this new study, researchers recruited 323 undergraduate and graduate students (ages 18-35) from a private university in the Northeast. Participants were asked to take a survey measuring their experience of climate change anxiety. The survey included subscales that evaluated two primary dimensions of climate anxiety. One subscale measured cognitive emotional impairment, the extent to which thinking about climate change affected respondents’ emotions. The other subscale measured functional impairment, which assessed how much thinking about climate change interfered with respondents’ ability to socialize or concentrate at work or school.
Climate anxiety itself isn’t necessarily a psychological problem; many climate experts argue that it’s actually a healthy, normal response to the frightening reality of climate change. But sometimes, the experience of climate anxiety can be debilitating, causing symptoms of recognized mental health diagnoses like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or major depressive disorder (MDD).
Results from the Yale/Suffolk study indicated that higher scores on both of the climate anxiety subscales were associated with symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, while only the functional impairment subscale was associated with more symptoms of major depressive disorder.
Significantly, researchers found that engaging in collective action, but not individual action, decreased the association between climate anxiety and symptoms of depression.
Collective activism can take a wide range of forms, from joining a rally or protest about environmental issues to participating in a community event focused on raising environmental awareness. What’s important is that it’s collective: individual actions, like recycling or turning off lights to save energy, didn’t have the same protective effect against symptoms of depression.
In an interview with the Yale Daily News, study author Laelia Benoit offered insight about why climate change may be so distressing for many people: “Climate change anxiety is a societal problem, it’s not an individual problem. It’s because our society is denying and ignoring climate change and not taking enough action that individuals start feeling mental distress.”
While climate activism isn’t a cure-all antidote to the mental distress that many of us feel about climate change, there’s no denying that when we feel less alone in our anxiety and grief, it’s easier to cope. And when we can find meaningful ways to cope, we’ll be better able to stay engaged in the climate movement for the long run.
So if you haven’t already joined a climate community like Moms Clean Air Force, consider this an official invitation. Collective climate action is healthy for the planet, and it just might be healthy for you, too.