This is part of a series examining the health repercussions for Canadians of a changing climate.
Sammy McLean, 14, felt overwhelming helplessness as she stood with her family and watched two angry rivers – the Bow and the Elbow – surge through their home, cutting a path of destruction across the downtown Calgary neighbourhood. Furniture flew through the front windows, and the basement and first floor were washed out and filled with mud. McLean remembers thinking that her once calm, picturesque street resembled a war zone.
A confident, athletic girl, McLean says the flood left her vulnerable, scared and hating the rivers that encircled her home. “They wouldn’t let us in for several days after we were evacuated,” says McLean, who now lives in a downtown condo with her parents and three siblings while the house is being extensively renovated. “I used to think the rivers were so pretty. It made me not like them any more. I thought the water was going to take away the whole house – and my bedroom.”
While the Alberta floods haven’t been directly linked to climate change, destructive weather events are expected to increase in Canada in the future. McLean, a normally upbeat youth, is painfully aware of the sheer power of Mother Nature and the carnage its fury can wreak. She’s now anxious about what we’re doing to our environment. “I volunteered to take an active role in my school’s Model United Nations, which is studying the impact climate change is having on our planet,” she said.
On one hand it scared her, but it also made her want to know more so she could help activate positive change.
Child psychiatrists, psychologists and educators say they’ve seen an escalation in the anxiety levels of today’s youth, who are constantly exposed to doomsday talk about the destruction of our planet. But despite the fact that we live in a world with more volatility and fear, experts say there is hope. And to stay mentally strong, they all advocate not just calling for change, but acting for it.
Dr. Anthony Levitt, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre’s director of research in the department of psychiatry, agrees climate-change anxiety increasingly enters into the discussions he has with many of the young people who come to see him. “Younger people [teens to mid-20s] appear to be much more accepting of the science and facts than older people,” Levitt observes. He’s also seen an uptick in climate-change-related anxiety in parents with younger children.
“For most people who are anxious about climate change, the anxiety is escalated by the fact they do not see an answer or a way to make a change. Worry plus powerlessness leads to distress,” says Levitt, who is also a professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Toronto.
“The answer, on a personal basis, to this kind of helpless distress is ‘mastery’: that is, helping people to master small tasks that reduce their carbon footprint can lead to a greater sense of control and efficacy for that person – and with that a reduction in anxiety. Can one person taking action to reduce their carbon footprint change global warming? Who knows. But it can relieve the distress that comes from anxiety mixed with impotence that affects a growing number of people in our society,” he said.
North Carolina-based psychotherapist Chris Saade, co-director of the Olive Branch Center, a grief/wellness counselling firm, says he’s seen a huge jump in the number of patients under 18 who come to him with concerns about the environmental crisis.
“Unlike adults who can put their heads in the sand about what we have been doing to our planet, these kids are very aware of what’s going on,” adds Saade, who has led more than 200 psychological retreats in the United States and has offered grief counselling through his private practice for more than 20 years. “Because of the Web, it’s not hidden any more. Children often ask me questions that we, as adults, try to evade: What is going to happen to the human race?”
Environmental activist and author Kenneth Worthy is quick to point out that kids aren’t the only ones trying to cope with the anxiety and fear that goes hand-in-hand with climate change. “Adults, too, are struggling to come to terms with the mental-health strains connected to the volatility, including economic loss from storms, floods and other natural disasters,” says Worthy, who quit a lucrative job as a software developer in Silicon Valley more than a decade ago to do a graduate degree in environmental studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
To cope with volatility, Worthy, 52, advises that we realize every generation has had great challenges. “Our forebears had the First World War and the Second World War. Another generation dealt with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war. Now the greatest threat to this generation – young and old – is the climate problem, which involves a lot of volatility, and a lot of change.”
He hopes we can face it as a generation, together. “We have to find the flexibility, the courage and the determination to stand up to that crisis – collectively, not just as individuals. Like our parents did before us.”
At the Olive Branch, Saade says counsellors acknowledge youths’ grief about the changing planet, and try to show them how to translate that into hope and action. “We tell them grief is a normal response of the human psyche when a loss is happening, whether it’s personal or, in this case, a global loss in terms of the environment. If we don’t feel grief, at the end of the day, we won’t do anything.”
Saade then counsels patients to connect with others. “As human beings we are made to deal with crises collectively, not individually. So we try to help them realize that, yes, we are looking at a global crisis, but you can also choose to be part of a global movement to address the crisis. This is a particularly important message to deliver to children, who are very sensitive to isolation. When a child goes into their imaginative being, they can really magnify their isolation, which can become overwhelming .… We tell them to become agents of transformation and change.”
In Calgary, Sammy McLean and her family and friends are bracing for another spring thaw. McLean is worried and she shares those concerns with her parents – who are also on edge, as are many of their neighbours.
“I’m scared of another flood. I’m scared it will be bigger than the last one,” she said. “But I’m also thankful. Our family has been able to afford to fix our house and get it back. I think of all those other poor people who lost everything and can’t afford to rebuild. We are the lucky ones.”