As awareness of the potential effects of climate change grows, so does anxiety and grief about the seriousness of the crisis. As a result, a new climate-anxiety support group is forming in Aspen.
Phillip Supino attended a panel discussion on climate change and mental health at this past summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival and was surprised by the strong emotions it raised. It seemed that both members of the panel and the audience were endorsing an incremental approach to addressing a real crisis. So Supino stood up to make a statement.
"I was crying in front of 75 people, talking about my son, talking about my own experiences and suggesting that the emotions that I was feeling informed a sense of urgency that I feel like other people maybe ought to think about having," he said.
The experience was cathartic, and that night, Supino and his wife, Emily, a therapist, decided to take action. Emily Supino said it became clear that there’s a community need to address the anxiety, fear and grief that accompany climate change. This month, she is starting a climate-anxiety support group.
“Our hope,” she said, “is that not only can people come together and process together, connect, support, but also talk about ways that individuals are coping and ways that they’re trying to make a difference and make a change.”
Other people do have that urgency that Phillip Supino feels. Students are striking, governments are declaring climate emergencies and experts such as Dr. Lise Van Susteren say depression, anxiety and stress disorders are all on the rise.
“I am absolutely seeing an increase in climate anxiety,” said Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on the psychological effects of climate change. “I’ve gotten calls from people almost paralyzed with grief.”
She said therapists are an essential tool as people confront the devastating realities of climate change.
“We know how to talk to people about defense mechanisms that cause them to deny reality or to disavow, diminish, hide,” she said. “We know how to build up trust with people so that we can talk to them about potentially frightening topics. We know how to deal with strong emotions — anger, fear, despair.”
People need support not only when their own communities are destroyed by wildfires and floods, but also as they work to understand less tangible impacts, such as economic and social unrest and the existential crisis of mass extinctions. Still, Van Susteren said, finding help isn’t always easy.
“It’s been very hard for patients individually to find therapists that are responsive to their climate anxieties,” Van Susteren said.
She is part of Climate Psychology Alliance, a group working to compile a list of mental health professionals who can help. She said such work has systemic impacts.
“Communities fray when individual members are suffering,” she said.
Phillip and Emily Supino are hoping to alleviate some of that individual suffering, and Phillip said the communal setting is important.
"It might carry more weight by validating other people's feelings and other people's experiences, and also create a venue for making connections that result in people taking action," he said.
People are demanding action. In September, local students participated in the climate strikes inspired by activist Greta Thunberg and successfully petitioned Pitkin County commissioners to declare a climate emergency. Commissioner Greg Poschman said it’s time for the county to address climate change from all angles, including mental health.
“There’s a generation of young people who are not sleeping well because they’re concerned,” Poschman said. “I know so many young people who say, ‘We’re not going to have kids because we’re not convinced we have a future.’”
It’s personal, too; Poschman’s daughters are among the founders of the Aspen Junior Environmentalists, who lobbied local governments to commit to climate action. Poschman sees the stress that climate change causes.
"I want my kids to be nimble, I want them to be resilient so that any of these changes that are being talked about related to the stress of climate change, they can deal,” he said.
Starting a community conversation that sheds light on such mental health challenges might be the first step.
The first meeting of the climate-anxiety support group is 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Aspen Police Department Community Room.
Editor's Note: This story was produced in collaboration with Aspen Journalism.