At our best, faith communities offer support for families and communities as they struggle with mental health. However, faith communities have a complicated history when it comes to mental health and wholeness. In some ways faith communities have failed by ignoring mental health challenges that are present within our communities and among clergy people. Oftentimes the stigma that has been placed upon the shoulders of those who are experiencing a variety of temporary and chronic mental health challenges has been ignored and even increased by communities and people of faith.
Adding climate change on top of the everyday mental health stressors we face, compounds issues and impacts, as shown in this new report from ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association: Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Inequities, Responses. Reading the report as a person of faith caused me to see that supporting mental health while grappling with our changing climate is both a social and spiritual issue.
When we have been at our best, faith communities have encouraged people to face suffering and loss with heart, mind, and body by using rituals, encouraging conversation, and honoring sacred stories from ancestors and community members. I am encouraged to see more and more clergy seeking professional mental health care, and more congregations offering opportunities to not only express and explore experiences of grief but to engage in caring for those with mental health challenges.
The climate crisis offers yet another opportunity to be our best, and to lovingly accompany one another in the midst of suffering and grief. Life and ministry is challenging for faith communities for a variety of reasons and we are seeing an increase in the ways that climate change and ecological degradation has impacted emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
We have had the opportunity to listen to people of faith as they grapple with the realities of our changing climate. We have heard the fear of the threats made to God’s good creation, felt the anger of those standing against a fossil fueled future, seen the tears of grandparents on behalf of their grandchildren.
This is not new – the reality is that ecological destruction in North America has been impacting our community for many years. For many, these stories are intertwined with stories of racism, economic oppression, and food insecurity. Ecological grief is not a new experience, however climate anxiety and eco-grief are being more widely recognized as another component of climate change. Register for an Eco-Grief Circle gathering here.
Back in the 1950s, environmentalist Aldo Leopold described environmental grief when he said “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” More recently, Dr. Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” to describe mental distress caused by environmental change, a kind of “homesickness” without leaving home that we feel as our common home becomes more unrecognizable.
We see grief showing up in a variety of ways. One way is for people to be experiencing grief and suffering due to past or current ecological challenges. These mental health concerns are the results of climate phenomena like increased heat indexes, displacement due to flooding or storms, increased stress due to illness and food insecurity. This kind of grief would be a natural response to well water being rendered toxic, beloved forests being burned, or generational farmland drying to dust.
Another way that grief shows up is in anxiety about a future that is inhospitable to people and creatures. As people learn more and more about the climate crisis and see the predictions from scientists beginning to come to fruition, we become increasingly aware of the fragility of our common future. With this awareness comes anxiety and even despair. Learn more about the impacts of climate change on mental health here.
As the report indicates, however, there is also much we can do to care for our mental health during a changing climate, and be part of the solution, too. We need to acknowledge the grief and the anxiety, and create space to acknowledge it. We can build mental health resilience and resilience to climate change at the same time. And, we can act on climate (action is a mental health antidote, too).
The work we Do together, like supporting clean energy policies, energy efficiency and carbon reduction, is vital and life giving. It seems that we are more able to act if we have space to Be. There is a growing movement of opportunities to build resilient hearts as we grow resilient communities including Eco-Grief Circles. If you would like to learn more about Eco Grief Circles you can email Rev. Scott Hardin-Nieri at Scotth@ecoamerica.org.
Articles for further reading.
Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Inequities, Responses. American Psychological Assoc. and Eco America, Oct. 2021
Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss: Nature Magazine-April 2018
How scientists are coping with ‘ecological grief’-The Guardian, Jan. 2020
Hope and mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding ecological grief – The Conversation, April 2018
Ecological Mourning Is a Unique Form of Grief- Psychology Today, March 2019
Embracing Pain– 3 minute video by Joanna Macy, 2012
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