When suicidal thinking emerges as an escape from the pain of climate distress
A big and uncomfortable topic that we need to take seriously
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It’s time to address something that’s been troubling me for a while now, which is the growing number of young people whose emails have landed in my inbox over the last year expressing a desire to not live anymore. They write from a place of extreme distress about living in a society that is knowingly failing to do all that it can to protect their futures from climate catastrophe. I’m not sure why the number is increasing. Might it come down to growing climate awareness among the public at large? The accumulating effects of witnessing enough climate disasters? Alarming and scary rhetoric in the media that fuel a feeling of “doom and gloom”? A lack of loudly celebrated solutions? The outcomes of COP26 failing to turn the tide of sentiment from anger and fear to (enough) robust hope and action? Or perhaps because this newsletter has grown, young people are simply finding me more easily now to express what they were already feeling ages ago? I can’t possibly know.
What I do know is that every now and again, I come across a message from yet another young person who says they simply can’t bear to live any longer in a system run by people who don’t seem to care about them, which is made clear by their sticking to the status quo. The writers of these messages often also mention that they don’t want to witness the destruction of ecosystems and whatever social strife this may cause over the rest of their lives.
I’ve been afraid to discuss the interconnection between suicide and climate distress for several reasons, including that we don’t have any good studies available yet on it, and that I am not a clinician. While we have lots of good studies now about how extreme heat or climate disasters can predict suicidal thinking and suicide completion, little has been examined scientifically about climate distress or eco-anxiety and suicide. As a non-clinician, I have worried that I might misstep and inadvertently cause harm if I write about this because I have not been trained to work with suicidal people and might, out of ignorance, do something irresponsible in my coverage. So even though this issue felt ever-pressing, I avoided it in these posts and even removed the interview from my book Generation Dread that explicitly dealt with suicide before it was published. The stakes just felt too high.
But then the topic started appearing in the news. For example: an ER doctor in British Columbia found that young people were attempting suicide and chalking it up to their climate anxiety, which had spiked after last year’s heatdome; earlier, information was made available about a high school student named Linda Zhang who took her own life as a consequence of climate despair. It was finally in the wake of Wynn Bruce’s widely publicized death (even though what Bruce committed was self-immolation and not suicide) that I started talking about the interconnection between suicide and climate distress with a variety of colleagues from psychiatry, psychology, and the study of climate emotions. I gathered many insights from these conversations that eventually made me feel it was okay to raise this issue in public, as long as I did so alongside a clinician. Those of us in the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of climate and mental health need to talk about this if we are going to be able to address it and provide people who are struggling with the support that they need. Public communication and awareness raising is an important aspect of this too.
So today, I’m glad to bring you a new collaboration between climate-aware psychotherapist Caroline Hickman and Gen Dread, in which we address this thorny issue. I invited Caroline to respond to a letter that a 17 year-old anonymous climate activist wrote to me about her own experience, which you will find in italics below. Caroline is a deep thinker and wise, compassionate commentator on all things climate distress, which is why I quote her until the cows come home in my book. She has also helped hundreds of climate anxious people all around the world in her clinical practice, supported countless activists in their work, and is a pioneering climate-aware therapist whose approach is widely sought after in the field.
Gen Dread will be seeing more of Caroline in the future. We’re experimenting with a new format where she will respond as a clinician to readers who write in with questions about emotions or psychological issues that pertain to the climate and ecological crisis. You can think of this as an “Agony Aunt” (for the Brits) or Dear Abby (for the Americans) or simply an advice column (for the rest of us). So feel free to submit your questions for Caroline in the comments below or by responding to this email. We cannot guarantee that Caroline will respond to your question, but she will get the chance to consider it when she chooses one from the batch of reader requests that come her way after each post.
Now, without further ado, Caroline will take it away.
Photo by Gian Reichmuth on Unsplash
Climate-aware psychotherapist Caroline Hickman discusses suicidal thinking and climate distress:
‘Tell me why I should want to live in a world that doesn’t care. All I see around me is decisions being made that hurt people, they don’t care about the future lives of us young people, they don’t care about the suffering of millions of people because of climate change, they should care, but they just don’t’.
These are the words of a 19-year-old young man who had campaigned as a climate activist for many years. He describes himself as driven to try to do something about the suffering he sees because of the climate crisis. He feels distress because of others' lack of care, what Sally Weintrobe calls the “culture of uncare”. I have increasingly been hearing stories like this from people of all ages as they awaken to the climate and biodiversity crisis, and then have to face the disillusionment and alienation that follows from seeing the lack of interest and action from others. It is not that they wish to die, more that they do not know how to live with the pain of others' indifference, to themselves, future generations and to the planet. It can feel as if children and young people are hated. How else can we explain the lack of action to secure a healthy future planet on which they can live, love, and thrive? This is personal and planetary hurt felt simultaneously. Perhaps the pain could be understood through the lens of how we understand children and childhood, perhaps it is the child in us (no matter what age we are) who is so depressed and bewildered and abandoned by the failure of people to care that they are left feeling that they cannot survive alone in that world. If we listened to that child’s voice, we might find the actions needed to find our way through this crisis. We might remember what was most important and take action.
Increasingly people tell me of dreams in which they must kill their loved ones to save them from starvation, or they are killed themselves by family who can no longer protect them from the terrors of social collapse. If these fears about the world enter dreams, then you have no respite, no rest from the confusion that can be overwhelming and all-consuming as we witness the climate crisis unfolding surrounded by people who do not see the danger, mock our fears, and try to silence us. It is understandably hard to know how to live in this world.
Imagining and empathising this way we might be better able to understand that some people feeling so trapped and afraid and alone, might chew off their own foot to escape or imagine suicide to be a relief from their pain.
There are many ways to try to understand the distress that leads people to feel suicidal in the face of climate breakdown, and I don’t pretend to present them all here. What is important is that we find the courage to have this conversation.
Letter from an anonymous 17 year old climate justice activist
The megaphone was too heavy in my cold, shaky hands. I was speaking in front of 100+ people at the Federal building and I was terrified. I hate public speaking. I hate uncertainty. I hate skipping school. But I’d never been this energized by something before; that was the moment I realized that I’d do anything for a just, livable future. So I did everything. I planned rallies, led meetings, and blockaded streets. I also coached other middle and high school organizers in campaign planning, time management, and communication. Mostly though, I was coaching people who didn’t believe in themselves, their peers, or our movement. They did not know how to exist in a world that had been set on fire. I was 15 and playing the role of a therapist, coach, and friend; I loved it because that was what the moment required of me.
While I was becoming a nationally recognized climate justice organizer, my mental health was spiraling and I had nobody to turn to. Before every meeting, I wiped the tears out of my eyes and pulled my messy, unwashed hair into a bun. I took most of my meetings from my bed. I fell deep into an eating disorder. I spent even more time organizing, though. I tried to leave no time for my suicidal thoughts and I excused my skipped meals by saying “I’ve been so busy I forgot to eat. Sorry, mom. I will be down for dinner tomorrow, I promise.” I started to feel like two different people. Part of me honestly believed that we would uproot systems of oppression and create a world built on the foundations of justice, care, and joy. Most of the time, though, climate justice no longer felt possible to me. People still cared more about football games than about climate justice. My peers spent hours on TikTok and ignored my texts about climate justice meetings. I thought endlessly about what “the point” was. It began with healthy reflection about the effectiveness of our organizing but it quickly spiraled into “why the fuck do I have to be alive? I don’t want to be alive.” It felt like I was shouting into a void; nobody could hear me or would hear me. And I was enraged at fossil fuel executives; they set our world on fire. Their largely successful scheme to exploit people and land felt like they were giving up on me and my generation. Why couldn't I give up, too? I had tried so hard, but now I was tired, sad, and done. I started spending less time planning strikes and more time planning my suicide.
None of the people I organized with suspected a thing, though. People still asked me “How do you do it? Where do you get your energy?” This only made me feel lonelier and more hopeless. It was like they thought I was a magical-climate-witch with never-ending knowledge and energy. But I wasn’t supernatural or special. I was a wreck. They weren’t friends with the “whole” me. I knew the “whole” them because I listened to them, coached them, and got to know them. I resonated with them when they expressed exhaustion, overwhelm, and sadness; I did everything a good coach and leader “should” do. I had to make climate justice seem possible, so I couldn’t share that I felt hopeless and was dangerously depressed. If even I didn’t believe climate justice was possible, why would they devote any of their energy to the movement? I had to be just vulnerable enough. They knew nothing of my eating disorder, severe depression, or suicidality.
I was in so much unrelenting emotional pain. I was enveloped by extreme, desperate sadness. My overwhelming sense of obligation left me feeling stuck. I couldn’t exist and do nothing about the humanitarian crises caused by climate catastrophe. But doing something felt pointless, draining, and isolating. Suicide would be a relief; it felt like my only choice.
Now, I’m really grateful to be alive. I’ve spent the last 7 months in treatment for my eating disorder and depression. I’m incredibly privileged to have had access to the treatment that saved my life.
But I’d be lying if I said I’m ok now. For me, it’s impossible to be ok in a society that values profit and thinness over everything else. We are taught to think about mental illness as unfortunate individual afflictions with individual treatments. But how can one be completely well when humanity itself is at stake?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that action is a powerful antidote to climate grief. I’ve slowly returned to climate justice work because I have made the terrifying decision not to give up on myself or everybody I love. If I still thought this work was pointless, I wouldn’t have returned to it and I would not be writing this essay. I don’t know exactly what changed for me. The climate crisis is a matter of degrees. Every fraction of a degree of warming we prevent saves lives. This work matters. But, we will not achieve climate justice alone or by working long endless hours. There is no deadline on climate justice work. We will do this work for the rest of our lives. So we must make this work more sustainable, fulfilling, joyful, and way less soul-crushing.
I know that climate justice is possible IF we’re able to nurture our relationships with ourselves and each other. That means supporting leaders, too. We cannot afford to be losing leaders to burnout or suicide. We need everyone. We don’t need perfection, we don’t need superheroes and we don’t need to be “fine.” We just need to show up as our messy selves to do what we can, and we must support each other.
Climate justice work is worth it, but it will never be worth your sanity or your life.
Returning now to Caroline Hickman:
Reading this very moving account the first thought that comes to my mind is just how honest you are. In your first words you have told us just how hard it is for you to face so many fears and anxieties such as public speaking and skipping school; and, just how important it was for you to do this, because you cared so much. And that’s the next thing that is so striking, just how much you care about other young people and have supported them in getting involved in the climate movement. Anyone who ever makes the mistake of thinking that climate activists are selfish because they disrupt people’s lives, or that they are mainly driven by fears about their own survival should rethink those defensive attitudes and judgements if they listen to your words and hear your care for others.
You have written honestly about what happens when that powerful desire to care starts to only be directed outwards, externally, with a lack of care directed internally at yourself, around food, sleep, support, and those critical inner voices. Then you become so vulnerable. And I’m so sorry that as you spiraled down you did not have anyone to talk with, to understand you. Being alone with these thoughts is just so scary. What made some of that worse for you was when your ability to care for others was met by others' failure to care about you, other young people, or the climate crisis.
So much of your pain and distress was hidden under the surface, out of sight of others, I am so pleased to read that you finally did find the help you needed. What you say about mental health in relation to the climate crisis is interesting. You are right that the traditional mental health system would view depression and anxiety as mental illness that requires treatment. But the question here is what do we do with our depression and anxiety when it is in relation to the climate crisis, and specifically in relation to others’ apparent lack of care? Because feelings of sadness, depression and anxiety are a mentally healthy response to the external reality of a world in deep trouble. But that does not mean that we should ignore the suffering that comes with these emotions. We need to respond to this with compassion, understanding, humility and care. That can be the only antidote to the (your words) ‘soul crushing’ experience of doing this work in a cultural, social, and emotional space that patronises, pathologizes, criminalises and disavows climate distress expressed through activism.
You ask an important question ‘how can one be completely well when humanity itself is at stake?’ and you say that you do not know the answer to that question. I think it’s important that we do not look for quick and easy answers to questions like this. The climate crisis is a new threat for humanity to face, and the distress we feel as we become aware of these systemic threats is an emergent mental health crisis. We are living within this whilst observing it and learning just what this means for humankind. Anyone who thinks they have a neat and simple answer is more than likely looking for a quick fix to reduce their own anxiety. This is a mistake, because it is our anxiety that will help guide us towards soul making rather than soul crushing relationship with our changing world. Anxiety will show us how to navigate this, if we treat it with respect rather than try to fix it and make it go away because of its inconvenient disruption to our peace of mind. We should not be at peace with things as they are.
We need to have the compassion, humour, and empathy to accept that we do not have easy answers to climate distress, but we do have a duty to find out how to support each other through this, and the humility to be willing to keep learning as we feel our way forwards. I love your words at the end ‘we just need to show up as our messy selves’. I agree with you, there is no creativity without mess. That messiness helps us tolerate the multiple uncertainties we must face here, it helps us hold in mind the importance of healing personal, family, social, community, global and planetary hurts. The messiness can help us reconnect.
If you are feeling suicidal, there are ways to cope and overcome the pain. The following crisis lines and resources can help you find support.
Suicide crisis lines in the U.S.:
The Trevor Project offers suicide prevention services for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline offers referrals for substance abuse and mental health treatment at 1-800-662-4357.
Suicide crisis lines worldwide:
In the UK and Ireland: Call Samaritans UK at 116 123.
In Australia: Call Lifeline Australia at 13 11 14.
In Canada: Call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566.
Climate aware mental health support
Do you have a question you want Caroline Hickman to weigh in on from a clinical perspective? Let us know in the comments or by replying to this email.
Lastly, a request to my readers // call to action
Have you read my new book Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis? If so and if you got something valuable from it, whatever that might be, what would mean the world to me is if you would please leave a review of the book on Amazon or Goodreads. Great reader reviews make all the difference to a book’s visibility and ongoing ability to be found by new readers, who I hope the book might be able to help as they navigate their own eco emotions. My sincere thanks to you for considering this request!
That’s all for this edition
As always, you can share your thoughts with me and reach the Gen Dread community by commenting on this article. You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram. I am not able to reply to every message, but I read them all and always respond when I can.
‘Till next time!