Stanford’s Britt Wray on the intersection of climate change and mental health
Planetary Health Postdoctoral Fellow Britt Wray discusses her recently published book about dealing with climate anxiety and her own path to finding purpose in a chaotic time.
In 2017, author Britt Wray felt forced to confront the climate crisis on a personal level when she and her husband began seriously discussing having a baby. By then, Wray had been absorbing grim news of planetary destruction for years as a biology student-turned science communicator. The question of whether or not to bring a new life into a seemingly doomed world caused the fear, frustration, and anger that had been simmering below the surface to boil over.
A feeling of isolation deepened a deep sense of grief and despair, which drove her to explore whether others were experiencing similar existential fears and dilemmas. Through conversations and research, she learned she was not alone and connected to a burgeoning community that offered strength and resolve.
Over the last five years, Wray worked her way through this crucible of emotion and forged a new sense of purpose – and a new livelihood. She turned to research to explore the mental and emotional toll exacted by the climate crisis and environmental destruction, using her storytelling skills to relay her findings on “how to stay sane in the climate and broader ecological crisis.”
In 2021, she became an inaugural Planetary Health Postdoctoral Fellow at the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She helped lead a groundbreaking new study on climate anxiety in 10,000 young people in over 10 countries, which underscored a looming mental health crisis. Three-quarters of respondents felt that the “future is frightening,” about half said climate anxiety affected their daily lives, and about a quarter feared having children due to the climate crisis.
Her recently published book, Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis explores how we as individuals – and as a community – can build resilience and convert the feelings known as eco-anxiety into a super-fuel to power our efforts to fight for a better world.
“Rather than bury our heads in the sand and suppress our discomfort, we can harness and transform the distress we feel into meaningful actions and forms of connection,” she writes.
In the following conversation, Wray offers hope and insight into how to do just that.
In your book, you describe holding a “balance between hope and fear” without giving in to either extreme. These days, where do you find yourself in this balance?
I find myself hopeful – in a gritty way. There is something about the turbulence of these times which is causing a lot of distress for a lot of people. But taking the time to really explore, reflect on, and process one’s difficult, even existential feelings, can cause a personal transformation that brings about resolve, courage, commitment, and moral clarity. This, then, can translate to connecting with others and pushing to create what you want to see more of in the world.
It’s not a fast process. There’s no guarantee that, if you feel ecological distress, grief, or rage about the injustices of what’s happening, it’s going to be this triumphant path towards personal transformation or resolve to make the world a better place. It can be a really difficult and harrowing place to be. It can have real negative consequences for mental health. Nothing is guaranteed, but there are ways through it.
At the same time that people are waking up to climate awareness and feeling really rattled, there is also the rise of literacy, support, research, and resources around what to do around these challenges. And that is incredible because it wasn’t there before.
Your uncertainty about whether or not to have a child in light of the climate crisis led you to this work. Then, last fall, you and your husband welcomed a baby into the world. Has having a child changed your outlook and how you approach your work?
I think my outlook had to change before having a child, in order to have a child. This happened through my research and the connections I gained from interviewing lots of people, joining various community groups focused on climate action, and processing my climate emotions. In doing so, I stepped out of that isolating, alienating place where I felt as though I was the only one with these experiences. All this helped me to move through my feelings and use them in a nourishing way to ask, “Okay, how am I going to be at this time? How do I want to use this one life that I have?”
I got really honest with myself about who I would be if I clung to only the most difficult, darkest emotions that are also alive in me. I began to tap into a bigger meaning and purpose from all of this distress; I quit my job and started a new career in climate and mental health. Those emotions still get kicked up from time to time by world events, and they are completely valid. But I found that I could accept things for being as turbulent as they are and move towards them with a disposition of joy. Once I made these shifts and devoted my life to working on planetary health issues, then I finally felt like, “OK, all right, now I can have a child.”
This was your process, as you put it, for turning eco-anxiety into a “super-fuel” to power positive change. How can others do the same?
A lot of the despair becomes as strong as it does because people don’t have another person who can validate and embrace their tough climate emotions and have them know they’re not crazy.
There are lots of ways in which to start the emotional processing of such feelings in a supportive way. That can be a climate cafe, an activist group, friends who simply get it and are ready to talk in an open non-judgmental way, a loved one in your family, or a climate emotions processing program like what’s offered by the Good Grief Network. The idea is for people to be able to show up authentically, have their feelings validated, and engage in frank conversations about what the climate crisis means in their life here and now. The support that comes through legitimizing the emotions can be immediately relieving in a really big way.
These feelings can change you as you move through them, learn to value them as a sign of care or love for what’s being lost, and can help you see how you can heal the problem with your talents, efforts, and energies. And you can end up, after having a rattling climate wake-up moment, coming out the other side with a fresh perspective on what you can do and how you can be of service. In psychology speak, it’s called meaning-focused coping.
In your book, you explore the idea that eco-anxiety can be exacerbated by privilege, felt most intensely by those not facing daily, systemic threats to their health and well-being. How do race and class impact the experience of climate change, which clearly impacts us all?
Everyone is vulnerable to the distressing – and potentially revitalizing – power of eco-anxiety if they recognize that their own health is tied up with the health of their environment. But we don’t all have the same resources, space, or interest to harness eco-anxiety when other existential threats may be more immediate.
For instance, as a white, middle-class Canadian woman, I have basically had the luxury of dreading the future, while others already acutely fear the present, and have long been suffering for how they were treated by dominant power systems in the past. For many, the climate crisis is a double injustice, as the most marginalized, primarily poor people of color are disproportionately harmed by a warming world. At the same time, they had the least to do with causing this mess.
As climate writer Sarah Jaquette Ray notes, racial inequality and the climate crisis need to be healed at the same time because they are inextricably intertwined. And privileged anxiety about the climate, like mine, must be harnessed and purposefully directed outward for justice-oriented results if it’s going to be of help.
Your research predicts a rising tide of mental health concerns as our climate crisis worsens. How can society prepare to meet this growing need?
For years, global health leaders have been looking at how we can get mental health support into low-resource settings.
A very promising model has emerged: Turning specialists into supervisors who train teams of community members interested in helping, but who don’t have any psychological expertise. This is called task shifting. Armed with interventions, these laypeople go out into the community, working with their neighbors in a trusted social fabric. They’re in community centers, grocery stores, schools, whatever it might be. Clinical trials have shown this approach can sometimes be even more effective than primary care with a specialist.
Something like this approach could be very effective in dealing with the scope of psychic damage that the climate crisis will be causing at an escalating rate. It’s time to be thinking about adapting these kinds of programs and empowering people to take shared ownership over their mental health as we adapt to our warming world.