RUMSON, N.J. (Reuters) - On a rainy night in the basement lounge of a church, five people sat in a circle and nibbled on snacks as they talked about their personal struggles.
They had not come to discuss alcoholism, drug addiction or gambling. This was the first meeting of a 10-week peer support program designed to help people suffering from anxiety or depression about climate change.
“Part of what causes me the anxiety is that so few people recognize the problem,” said David Frette, a 52-year-old dog groomer and stay-at-home dad who came to the meeting in this seaside town after seeing a flyer. “When you have scientists saying we have 10 years to enact political measures, how do you think about saving for your daughter’s college fund?”
A growing number of people in the United States, Australia, Canada and Britain are seeking out climate anxiety support groups as they come to terms with ominous scientific reports of global warming, according to support group leaders. Some psychologists say the trend indicates a growing need for mental healthcare specific to climate change.
In a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists estimated it may take as few as 11 years for Earth’s temperature to rise to an irreversible tipping point if global carbon emissions are not substantially cut.
“People feel isolated. Business as usual keeps going almost without any worry about what happens on the climate change front,” said LaUra Schmidt, co-founder of the climate anxiety support group network to which the New Jersey group belongs.
Schmidt and Aimee Lewis-Reau started the Good Grief Network in 2016 for people suffering from anxiety over climate change. Neither one is a psychologist, and they do not claim to provide counseling. The first peer support group met in a participant’s living room in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Since then, Schmidt and Lewis-Reau have honed their 10-step program in the model of Alcoholics Anonymous and are now focused on expanding the organization by training new facilitators.
Climate change, including more severe weather events, warmer temperatures and rising sea levels, is already having harmful effects on mental health, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The effects are likely to worsen, especially in vulnerable populations such as children, migrants, and people already living with mental illness.
Research has confirmed such impacts of climate disasters on mental health as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in wildfire survivors, but there is not sufficient research on anxiety and depression resulting from general awareness of climate change, according to several mental health experts.
The APA does not classify “climate anxiety” as a disorder.
Joe Ruzek, a psychologist who specializes in trauma and has trained mental health experts to treat survivors of California wildfires with PTSD, said climate anxiety was justified but cautioned against viewing it as a unique mental illness. He added that it needed further study.
“Probably we should not be labeling these all as disorders when they could be stress reactions,” Ruzek said in a phone interview.
Some members of climate anxiety support groups have been affected by natural disasters, but most join out of a sense of despair, Schmidt said.
Several mental health experts said peer support groups, while helpful, do not fulfill the need for professional mental healthcare.
“There is no systematic, unified strategy to help people who are being hurt,” said Lise van Susteren, a psychiatrist who has written extensively on the mental health consequences of climate change.
The Climate Psychology Alliance and the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, two professional groups working to improve climate-specific mental healthcare, want to include climate training in medical schools, develop eco-awareness training for therapists and create a reference list of eco-aware therapists.
Activism may be another way to deal with anxiety, experts say.
Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, who launched a global movement by striking from school to protest political inaction, fell into despair at age 11 when she realized the gravity of climate change and how little politicians were doing about it.
“I stopped talking and I stopped eating,” Thunberg recalled in a TED Talk.
Thunberg’s activism, borne out of her depression and urge to make a difference, is an example of the positive outcome climate anxiety can have, van Susteren said.
“Empowering action is the antidote to these horrific, overwhelming emotions,” van Susteren said.
Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Richard Chang