Chris Schulz Published

Addressing Climate Anxiety Ahead Of Earth Day

The famous "Blue Marble" image from NASA shows a wide view of Earth from space. A circle is set against a black backdrop
Concerns about the planet's future leading to feelings of hopelessness are increasingly being referred to as "climate anxiety."

In recent years, uncertainty about the future amidst a changing climate has given rise to a phenomenon known as “climate anxiety.”

Ahead of Earth Day Monday, Chris Schulz spoke with Amy Parsons-White, sustainability manager for Marshall University, to discuss this mental health issue and potential solutions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Schulz: What does the sustainability manager do at a university? 

Parsons-White: Well, we have our hands on a lot of different things. The main goal of all of our projects is to look at people, planet and profit, because that’s what sustainability is. We develop programs that incorporate social equity with reducing our carbon footprint and reducing waste, with being able to save the university money, and/or make money, one or the other, whichever one or both. Our programs have to do all three. 

Schulz: Can you quickly give me an example or two of some of those programs? 

Parsons-White: One of our biggest programs to date is our composting facility. We recently began the first commercial compost facility in the state. That is really a perfect example of sustainability, we’re taking all of our food waste, most of our cardboard and paper to the facility and composting it. We’re reducing our carbon footprint by not sending these things off to the landfill to produce methane. We’re also saving the university money in waste haul from not sending all of this waste. While we’re there, we’re able to work with the public, do workshops, educate on how they too can compost in their backyard or become involved with us. And then we sell it to make a profit, so it really fits every point of sustainability. 

Schulz: In your own words, can you explain what climate anxiety is?

Parsons-White: Climate anxiety just refers to the distressing feelings that some people have related to the impacts of climate change. A lot of that comes because there is a feeling of uncertainty, or a lack of control over your well being and your safety in regards to climate change. 

Schulz: How are you seeing that manifest on Marshall’s campus and in the student body?

Parsons-White: We’re seeing that a lot now on campus. We work with the Counseling Center a good bit and know that counseling services on campus have increased. A lot of students are feeling hopeless, like they just don’t know what to do. That’s why we try to educate, to let them know that there are solutions, it isn’t over. There are some really great solutions that we can all do.

Schulz: How can students get involved, both on campus and also more broadly in West Virginia?

Parsons-White: Actions that they can take to help reduce their climate anxiety is, number one, focus on what you can control. We can all do little things to control the impacts of climate change. Whether that’s participating in climate change initiatives, even calling your legislators, building sustainable habits yourself and educating those around you either in energy use, composting, recycling, consumerism, change the way you commute to campus. There are all kinds of things that you can do in your daily life to help make you feel a little more in control. 

I would say the most important of any of those would be to participate in climate change initiatives. This doesn’t mean bombarding yourself and digesting climate change media constantly, because we can’t do that and be mentally healthy either. But getting involved in a group, like the Citizens Climate Lobby, who make great strides in changing policy, and advocating for climate change relief, could be a wonderful way to reduce your anxiety because you can see progress being made, if that makes sense. Going to one climate rally usually increases people’s anxiety, but if you hang in there and get involved with an organization, then you can see that there is progress being made, and that can alleviate your anxiety.

Schulz: Does that speak to the concern that some people have, that focusing on individual issues doesn’t address the fact that this is a systemic problem that’s much larger than any one person?

Parsons-White: Doing individual things can make us feel better, but yes, getting involved in an organization, first of all, can help you to not feel so alone in this. I think that’s a big issue too. People feel like they’re alone and they’re fighting this battle all by themselves. You’re not alone. Join an organization, do real systemic change, policy and advocacy. And that is really the best way to get to the source, with the policy, to reduce your climate anxiety.

Schulz: Do you feel that the conversation is slightly different in a fossil fuel state like West Virginia?

Parsons-White: During legislative session, when we’re seeing bills that are being passed, it can feel a little heavy sometimes, because there is a push for coal and oil and gas. What we need to remember is that there’s also a huge push, there are a lot of people out there working to reduce these things and to expand alternative fuel infrastructure throughout the state.

I can see, living in this area of the United States, how that could add to your anxiety with climate change, that maybe you may feel hopeless. That is why it would be great to join an organization so that you can see that you aren’t alone. There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work in this state. 

Schulz: Is there a greater potential, perhaps in a state like West Virginia? 

Parsons-White: There is work to be done. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, we can get in and we can see changes happen quickly. That’s actually a very positive thing because it can reduce your anxiety when you get in and you work with these groups and start seeing a lot of change happen quickly.

Schulz: How have things changed over your career? Is this anxiety, is this worry something new? Has it always been there, and is it just more widespread now?

Parsons-White: I think that it’s always been there. I think if you look at conversations around mental health, you’ve seen mental health professionals talk about how there has been a decline in mental health, more anxiety, more depression, amongst young people in particular. But no one could really put their finger on it. I think we’re seeing now that it is because young people have a lot more on their plates than I even had at their age back in the 90s.

I think a lot of it comes from, they get bombarded on social media. We’re always seeing the effects. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t look it up, keep current on the events and what’s happening, yes. But also, you need to take a break sometimes. Go do other things, take a walk. Just get away from that. I think that that actually leads to a lot of the climate anxiety that we’re seeing today just because it’s everywhere we look, and it’s always accessible.

Schulz: Do you see a change in the students that you work with on campus when they do engage with your office with your initiatives? Is it having the intended positive result for them? 

Parsons-White: I think that it is for those who become involved and stay involved, because they are able to see the changes that we’re making. That’s really what it comes down to when students become involved. As I said before, going to one or two rallies or being involved in one isolated program, a lot of times that can make you feel worse in the long run because you’re only seeing the problem and you don’t stick around to see the solution. 

I get it, because a lot of students don’t want to come back because it’s heavy. We’ve also shifted how we talk about things, we’re more solution oriented. We all know what the problems are, we see it all around us every day. But there are solutions. Getting away from problem-oriented programming to solution-oriented programming I think has made a very big difference in how our students react, how they respond to that, but also how they choose to stay coming back to the sustainability department and engaging in our programs, because it is more uplifting.

Schulz: Is there anything else about this particular issue, the intersection of mental health and sustainability, that I haven’t given you an opportunity to discuss with me? Or is there something that you like to highlight?

Parsons-White: I would like to highlight: become involved, stay current, but don’t overload yourself. It’s always okay to take a day off. We all need that for our mental health. Also, I would like to point out that I think a lot of the anxiety comes from, especially in this region, we don’t have a lot of options when it comes to recycling or going single-use plastic free. Practice compassion, not just with other people when you see them doing things that you might not agree with, but also with yourself. If you forget your grocery bags and have to use the plastic ones from the grocery store, it’ll be okay. You can reuse those. I like to tell students to, to also be aware and use kind of affirmations. It’s okay to feel stressed out about climate change. You don’t have to beat yourself up over that. Also, you can make a difference. Big changes take time. Just because you’ve called your Senator once on this day doesn’t mean that it’s not going to have an effect a year down the road. 

Also, it’s okay to take a break, I’m going back to that one. I think that the overload, the guilt that comes with taking a break in our society is very real. When it comes to something as heavy as climate change, especially those of us who care, can really beat ourselves up. So you can’t be there to advocate for policy change in the future, if you’re not taking care of your mental well being now. So just be kind to yourself.