‘Ecological grief is very real’ and it can impact mental health of Canadian youth

Sabrina Huot sometimes feel the weight of the world and it’s climate on her shoulders.

The MacEwan University student advocates sustainability and leads by example — riding her bike most places, cutting back on plastics and buying in bulk.

Still, Huot said she wonders if it’s all for nothing.

“Why am I taking these measures when everyone else is just living their life and plugging their ears?”

She called that feeling of helplessness her “ecological grief,” which is also known as eco-anxiety.

“It’s an overwhelming feeling, especially with all the wildfires that are happening and the smoke in the area.

“It’s a really big weight to hold as someone who cares a lot about the environment and sustainability and moving forward into future generations.”

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The latest United Nations report on climate change may intensify that angst.

Scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said humans are “unequivocally” to blame for global warming.

“As a young adult, someone in their mid-20s thinking about my future, what does it look like?” Huot asked. “If I have children, what is the world going to look like when they grow up?

“What is the future going to look like? Is it going to be sustainable? Is it going to be so hot that I can’t go outside?”

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Those feelings of hopelessness are more and more common among young people, said Robert Gifford, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria.

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“Anxiety on the part of young people is completely justified.

“We should not denigrate people who are experiencing eco-anxiety. We should be saying, ‘Well, what can I do for you? How can I help?’”

While eco-anxiety is not a formal clinical disease yet, Gifford said it does impact mental health.

“It’s completely understandable, especially in light of the new IPCC report,” said Gifford, “but we need to do something about it.”

Gifford penned the “dragons of inaction” — psychological barriers that limit climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

The professor said it lists about 40 rationalizations people use for saying, “Yes it’s a problem, but um, well yeah… I’ve got other things to do.”

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“Because it’s not right in our face, we’re not in a town that’s burning up, ourselves, so it’s easy to discount things that are happening a little further away,” Gifford said, “or happening in 2050.”

Read more: Lytton, B.C., residents make the emotional return to burned-out town

While it’s important to take action against climate change, “we can’t go so far as to destroy ourselves,” he said.

Gifford pointed to a case of an Australian teen who refused to drink water in his fight against climate change.

Instead of focusing on the eco doom and gloom, Gifford wants young people to think of the IPCC report as a “challenge.”

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Canadian teen pushing for timely climate change action

He said if young people view their green steps in a global context they may get discouraged.

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For those suffering from eco-anxiety, he suggested joining a group that reinforces your actions for helping out, and focus on the difference to you and your mental health.

“Don’t try to do it all yourself.

“Doing something is going to be good for you, even if OK, objectively one person isn’t going to change the world.”

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Huot has done that.

She works with the Alberta Emerald Foundation, and joined the MacEwan Sustainability Leadership Council.

“There are days of cynicism and being really upset of the fact that not everybody cares and some people are just oblivious and they seem to skirt the issue and not want to talk about it,” said Huot of her passion for a greener life.

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“Ecological grief is very real and it’s very prominent and it shouldn’t be something that’s brushed over.”

She encouraged other youth to find a local environmental organization to connect with others passionate about sustainability.

And remind yourself, you’re not in it alone.

“I think every individual action is important because when they come together, they can have a big impact.”

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