The environmental movement is doing more to address the psychological toll on activists and volunteers, encouraging resilience and self-care to counteract anxiety and grief over planetary damage.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It’s become clear that climate change is already damaging our planet, and for many people, the anxiety and grief over that change can become overwhelming. From member station KCUR in Kansas City, Alex Smith reports on how many activists are thinking differently about mental health as they continue their fight.
ALEX SMITH, BYLINE: When I was growing up in the Kansas City suburbs, I had a friend named Kevin Aaron, who was a dedicated environmentalist. What I loved about Kevin was that he believed in the better angels of our nature. Instead of shouting down opponents, he tried to convince them to be part of the solution.
In the early 2000s, Kevin went to Oakland to study environmental law and start his career, but he became overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness about the climate. This added to the depression he was already struggling with. In 2003, Kevin died by suicide. He was 27 years old. His death was a shock and remains painful for those who loved him.
I reached out to Kevin’s mother, Sami Aaron, recently, and we met at one of her favorite spots, a native flower preserve in Olathe, Kan. It was buzzing with butterflies and bees. After walking through the grounds, Sami and I sat on a bench to talk. She says the more deeply her son became involved in environmental activism, the more his thinking was taken over by pessimism, just like an invasive species.
SAMI AARON: There was one little seed that was planted where he couldn’t then quit thinking about it. And so that seed sprout a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more.
SMITH: Kevin couldn’t shake the idea that his activism was futile and even all the combined environmental efforts just wouldn’t be enough.
AARON: At some point, there was this whole forest of eucalyptus trees in his metaphoric mind that just wasn’t going to make any difference.
SMITH: After Kevin died, Sami found solace in yoga and meditation. But a few years ago, she met some Kansas environmentalists working to preserve native prairie. Some of them also struggled with mental health. She wanted to help. So in 2018, she created a nonprofit called The Resilient Activist. It’s her way of sharing the coping strategies she learned following her son’s death.
AARON: We need activists who have the resilience to see us through these difficult times, and that’s what I wanted to give. It was like what would have helped him and others like him.
SMITH: In a recent poll, more than half of the adults said climate change is affecting their mental health. Among young adults, nearly 40% say addressing climate change is their highest personal concern.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Our hands, our future, our turn.
SMITH: Outside the city hall in Lawrence, Kan., protesters gathered recently, carrying signs with messages like Time is Running Out. They want city leaders to spend more money on sustainability efforts. Many are University of Kansas students, like undergraduate Marc Veloz. He moved here from Texas, where he became concerned about how flooding was disproportionately affecting communities of color in Dallas. He says taking part in local activism helps him get through what he calls dark days.
MARC VELOZ: There are those days where I just have to lean on the little wins we’ve had to keep me going because I know that, like, being in that space of despair and, you know, just anger and sadness – like, it’s – it just – it isn’t sustainable.
SMITH: Some anxiety can spur people to action, and that can relieve feelings of helplessness. But psychologists say anxiety becomes maladaptive when it causes people to turn away or give up on the problem. However, many environmentalists have traditionally resisted prioritizing their own mental health. In 2018, Greenpeace started studying why so many of their activists were working themselves past their limits. Greenpeace organizer Agus (ph) Maggio explains that many volunteers and leaders had bought into a kind of martyr culture.
AGUS MAGGIO: Burning yourself out is almost like a badge of honor. So really, overworking yourself and giving up your life for the cause is considered to be something admirable.
SMITH: Greenpeace and other environmental groups, like the Sierra Club and the Sunrise Movement, now urge staff and volunteers to take breaks, unplug or even limit the scope of their activism for the sake of mental health. This marks a shift in the movement as a whole. After all, the message for so many years was that people need to be alarmed.
WARD LYLES: When I first started, I thought it was my job to scare people into action.
SMITH: That’s Ward Lyles, an urban planning professor at the University of Kansas and an activist since the ’90s. Lyles says he recently realized that students enter his classes already terrified about what’s happening to the planet and desperate to do something about it. For activists like these, there are new resources. The group founded by Kevin’s mother offers community events and therapist referrals, as well as yoga and meditation. But Sami Aaron says her goal goes beyond relaxation. She hopes to help activists let go of the narrow, negative thinking associated with anxiety and depression.
AARON: To kind of shift you out of that constant fight or flight mode so that now you’re in a place, when your breath is soft and your body’s relaxed, you have all different ways of thinking. You have all these other options for what can happen and what you can do.
SMITH: Reaching a sustainable future, she says, requires people to remain optimistic and open to new possibilities.
For NPR News, I’m Alex Smith in Kansas City.
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