As climate anxiety brews, campuses are piloting therapy programs

In early 2020, weeks before anxiety about another crisis roiled the globe, a small group of students gathered in a room at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for a counseling session on worry and grief related to global warming. For an hour, during the first such session at the institution, the students talked through fears and frustrations of a world impacted by climate change.

Lauren Becker, a former student who had worked with the university’s counseling services to make these sessions happen, sat in one day to observe. But at the end of the session, she said she left feeling even more hopeless than before.

It was hard to feel as though there was a “level of understanding of how dire the situation is,” Becker said.

She didn’t blame the counselor —and was grateful they were taking on this task – but she hoped the counseling would acknowledge the physical and psychological toll of climate change on young people, an age group she said is “inheriting” the crisis.

“I think that this is the case in a lot of different arenas where it’s not as informed care as it could be,” she said.

There is a critical need among young people for climate stress counseling services, psychological experts say, especially in university settings. But many therapists and counselors aren’t trained to provide students with this specific type of support, in part because of a lack of research about climate stress as a distinct phenomenon. Still, several universities across the United States are beginning to fill this gap: Some are starting to offer climate stress therapy for students in the form of pilot programs, while others are discussing what might be possible through existing campus counseling services.

Eco-anxiety is commonly used to describe people’s concerns about climate change, but psychologists say it is better to use more general terms like “climate stress” and “climate distress” – terms that encompass the range of feelings someone may have in response to climate change. Climate stress therapy, experts say, is an effort to validate these emotions, help clients process their responses to climate change and provide coping strategies.

If young people don’t have the right resources and feel “sort of paralyzed in these uncomfortable emotions, then we’re not going to be able to solve this thing,” said Sarah Stoeckl, the assistant director of the University of Oregon’s Office of Sustainability. “We need young people to fight and that means we need to support them.”

Stoeckl’s team at the University of Oregon wants to allocate more resources toward helping students experiencing climate stress, which includes reaching out to the institution’s counseling center. Universities have an obligation, Stoeckl said, to tend to students’ feelings of frustration, anger, fear and powerlessness in the face of climate change.

Psychologists say there’s also an existing imbalance in who seeks these resources, with individuals who outwardly express high levels of climate distress often coming from privileged backgrounds. While communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change, Elizabeth Haase, chair of the American Psychiatric Association Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health, explains that a “hierarchy of needs” prevents many of these individuals from addressing their climate distress.

“You don’t have the space to have that kind of change unless you have that degree of privilege, which leaves you with time and energy to work on it,” Haase said.

Those involved in creating climate stress resources say it’s critical to acknowledge perspectives from communities of color and marginalized communities, including those who have long had fundamental worries about how environmental realities impact their lives.

Dan Murphy, a former post-doctoral fellow in professional psychology at the University of Michigan, said he’s hopeful that growing research will give leadership at the institution the authority it needs to say in an “evidence-based way, we need you to address climate stress in the student population. “

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From February to April, Murphy and Carolyn Scorpio, a staff social worker for the University of Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), created and facilitated a 10-week pilot therapy group for climate stress through CAPS. For an hour once a week, five students joined them on Zoom.

During the meetings, there was an emphasis on building connections among the students in the group, allowing them to bond over shared feelings and experiences surrounding the climate crisis. Conversations also centered on how students can talk to family and friends who don’t have the same level of concern about climate change. They talked about how to manage despair and grief related to the future of the planet, but also how to find joy and gratitude when immersed in nature.

With climate stress counseling, Scorpio said rather than just consoling, it helps to provide coping strategies to assist students in calming their own nervous systems, and to think about the issues from a different perspective.

Murphy said he began thinking more about addressing climate stress while doing field work for his doctorate in Pittsburgh. Some clients described how thoughts about the climate crisis and dire future of the planet exacerbated existing struggles with severe depression or suicidal thoughts – and he worried he didn’t have the specific training to address some of those concerns.

The American Psychiatric Association does not currently require mental health professionals to have training on climate-related issues. For now, experts say therapists interested in offering climate-specific resources need to seek out tools to do so themselves.

A group of instructors will soon launch a climate psychology certificate in an effort to equip more mental health and allied professionals with the training they need to provide this care. Leslie Davenport, a climate psychology educator and consultant, and Barbara Easterlin, a clinician and consultant specializing in climate psychology, will co-lead the five-week program that begins this month.

Davenport said the certificate program will recognize perspectives from Black and Indigenous people, as well as communities of color, who she noted have experienced “multiple crises” in addition to climate change.

Of the 40 participants who will be accepted into the certificate program, Davenport suspects some of them will be counselors at universities. She hopes this training will teach counselors how to help students cope with their climate stress and find ways to be a part of meaningful change.

“I compare it to something like pain management. If your hand is accidentally slammed in a door, you’re not only going to do things to bring kind of a peaceful state of mind, ”Davenport said. “You want to get your hand out of the door, too. The psychological part is really meant to go hand in hand with climate action. “

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At Michigan, students in counseling services told Scorpio they struggled to focus on homework and career goals.

“This idea of, ‘What’s the point of doing all this if the world is on fire?’” Scorpio said.

Scorpio and Murphy had the idea for a therapy group on climate stress after consulting with each other about what their clients had been experiencing.

Even as people expressed interest in the possible program, there were challenges: busy college students couldn’t commit to hour-long sessions, and it was hard to ensure they’d find a secluded space every week.

When they did meet, Scorpio said the feedback from students was “overwhelmingly positive.” Students valued the sense of community in the group and relished having an intentional space to share their feelings. Some wished the sessions could have lasted longer.

At Western Michigan University, recent graduate Kennedy Williams and her friend Max Offerman organized five “climate cafés” on campus for students last year. The sessions were meant to be informal spaces where people could share their emotional responses to climate change, as outlined by the Climate Psychology Alliance. At meetings, participants would choose an object in nature they resonate with – including leaves, flowers, twigs, stones, shells – sparking conversation and allowing students to connect to each other’s experiences.

One of the main rules: “No call to actions.”

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Some counselors and former students noted that many participating in these climate stress groups are usually already familiar with or entrenched in ways they can address the crisis – solutions they can tackle as individuals. For this reason, they preferred for group sessions to focus on coping with, and expressing, their feelings.

“Climate cafés were really just a safe space to … feel what they’re feeling without the judgment of ‘you’re not doing enough,'” Williams said, “because that leads to burnout really fast.”

Haase said leaders, including university administrators, should validate and respond to students’ concerns about climate change.

Maddie Loeffler was a sophomore at UW-Eau Claire when she attended the same climate anxiety and grief counseling session as Becker. Loeffler said the counseling session didn’t lessen her stress or sense of hopelessness about climate change. But she didn’t expect it to.

“It’s not about fixing climate anxiety or making it go away. It’s about connecting with people who are experiencing the same thing. “

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