VIEW: Climate anxiety and grief are healthy feelings which can form a basis for action

Young people are particularly experiencing real stress and anxiety around climate change, with four in five Australian students recently reporting they are very anxious, and one in five saying they would not or have fewer children because of climate change. In this interview, Dr Sally Gillespie outlines how she has applied her studies and experiences with Jungian psychology to help others and publish a book on climate consciousness.

  • What is Jungian psychology and how did you initially become interested in this field?

The focus of Jungian psychology is to expand consciousness through identifying unconscious aspects of ourselves and the cultures we live within. As a therapeutic approach, it encourages us to find meaning and healing through seeing beyond our habitual thoughts, behaviours and identifications. Jungian psychological practices aim to question, observe and reflect on unknown aspects of ourselves through paying attention to dreams, body symptoms, emotional responses, fantasies and creative expressions.

Jungian psychology initially appealed to me because of my vivid dream life. In my early twenties I began recording and working with my dreams, which led me to read and attend lectures about dreams and the work of Jung. This led me into Jungian analysis and then training to become a psychotherapist.

  • How have you been applying it to the field and global issue of climate change?

As my concerns over climate change grew, I became aware that there was a strong psychological component behind climate denial and inaction. This prompted me to think about my own and other people’s reactions to climate change. My dreams also reflected climate concerns, spurring me on to deeper involvement. In 2011 I undertook PHD research and set up a research group to discuss our psychological responses to ongoing engagement with climate issues. Drawing upon Jungian perspectives, I looked for ways to bring unconscious feelings into consciousness through encouraging reflective conversations, based upon respectful listening and open-ended questions. I also invited participants to share dreams which seemed relevant to the research topic. Dream sharing allowed the group’s conversations to acknowledge difficult feelings like confusion, fear, grief and despair in ways which fostered compassion, wisdom and tolerance. What we learnt through this research process was that having the safety and space to identify and explore climate change responses, many of which were quite ambivalent or contradictory, increased our emotional resilience and motivation for action.

When something which has been felt unconsciously becomes conscious and can be explored compassionately with others, it frees minds, hearts and imaginations for change and creative action. I have continued this work through writing and facilitating community conversations and workshops on climate psychology.

  • ‘Climate anxiety’ is a growing problem and challenge, particularly for younger generations. How common or natural is it to feel overwhelmed by issues like climate change?

It is important to acknowledge that feeling anxious about climate disruption is a rational and sane response, especially given the lack of adequate climate action by Governments, nationally and internationally. Climate anxiety and grief are healthy feelings to have and are part of waking up to what is being lost and destroyed in our natural world, and the ways that this will affect our lives especially for younger generations. When this anxiety and grief can be acknowledged and shared safely, it builds empathy and connections with others while developing ecological consciousness and conscience as a basis for action.

While it is natural to feel overwhelmed at times by climate anxiety, especially when in midst of climate driven disasters such as drought and bushfires, it is neither healthy nor useful to live in a perpetual state of heightened anxiety over climate disruption, or to feel paralysed by climate anxieties. Instead we need to learn how to process and manage our climate fears, as many long term climate campaigners and scientists have learnt to do.

The emotional process of normalising and familiarising ourselves with climate anxiety acts as an antidote for feelings of numbness and apathy which frequently mask underlying or unconscious feelings of climate anxiety, grief and despair. We need to identify, discuss and digest our climate fears and sadness, at both a personal and a collective level, to become fully engaged and response-able. When we can do this, climate anxiety does not so much disappear as become a part of the landscape of our lives and our relationship to our world, which we can reflect upon and integrate over time.

  • How can someone who is experiencing this feeling of being overwhelmed shift their mindset to be more action-oriented?

Learning how to manage climate anxiety is an ongoing personal and collective process which builds social connections, develops emotional resilience and empowers action. The first step is to acknowledge how you feel and to share your feelings with others in a safe space. For anyone experiencing ongoing paralysing anxiety, it is best to seek sympathetic professional help to manage distressing anxiety symptoms. Otherwise a good strategy is to seek out others who are up for honest and respectful conversations (not debates!) about climate anxiety. This might mean initiating conversations with friends or within your existing communities, such as schools, workplaces, sporting groups or book clubs, or it might mean initiating a climate discussion group.

While people are often scared to enter into climate conversations, fearing that they will either feel overwhelmed or encounter arguments, they usually feel relieved and grateful when they can talk openly and safely about their feelings with someone who listens well. There are also supportive websites, podcasts and books that acknowledge climate anxiety and grief, while sharing inspirational personal stories that support connection and action.

Secondly, monitor how much time you spend viewing climate media reports as this can be traumatising. Once you accept the basic climate science it is best to focus on collective climate action rather than fall into repeated reading of distressing reports on your own.

Thirdly, prioritise emotional wellbeing through maintaining self-care and social networks. For climate action to be sustainable and enjoyable, as it needs to be, individuals and campaign groups need to foster social connection and support through activities such as regular check ins, mindfulness practices, bushwalks or group dinners. Additionally always choose a form of action that excites you and aligns with your talents and interests, while also making time for fun activities not related to climate action. Just as our ecosystems need restorative attention and space, so do we!

About the expert

Dr Sally Gillespie facilitates workshops on climate psychology and ecopsychology and is the author of Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Re-imagining our world and ourselves, available online and in all good bookstores.

Image description: Headshot of Dr Sally Gillespie from the shoulders up. She wears a navy blue top, gold necklace and glasses. She is smiling and standing in a garden, surrounded by trees and plants.


PEOPLE: Providing mental health services in an overloaded industry during a pandemic

CONTENT WARNING: The following article mentions suicide and domestic violence. If this triggers something or you need to talk to someone, please called Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. If you’re in immediate danger, call 000.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many are doing it tough, including the thousands of healthcare workers on the frontlines. Sarah Goulding is one of these frontline workers, taking on night shifts to deliver much-needed mental health services to patients, while homeschooling during the day. In this interview, she shares how she has seen the mental health industry evolve throughout her career, her experiences during the pandemic, and advice for others considering a career in this space.

  • Working in the mental health space, what are the major mental health challenges you’ve seen Australians struggle with and how has that changed over time, particularly now during COVID-19?

The major challenges we face in mental health are access to service issues and under resourcing. Access to community mental health services and inpatient beds remain an issue – long waitlists for community treatment teams, blockages in Emergency Departments for consumers awaiting and inpatient beds.

Staff are constantly under pressure to move people through the system as quickly as possible, to make more space for the high demand of patient flow. This has resulted in poor patient outcomes and high staff burn out rates. 

The majority of struggle during COVID-19 has been the sudden spike in mental health issues whether consumers have pre existing conditions or new presentations. When you have a system that is already overloaded and these unprecedented events occur, it can be quite catastrophic. Consumers have been struggling with a range of emotions, such as panic, hoarding, low mood, and anxiety. We also have to consider our consumers that have pre existing mental health conditions who have relapsed under the stressful conditions of social isolation. 

There have been reports of impulsive suicide in the community and for consumers in quarrantine. There has been a major spike in domestic and family violence cases. 

Over time we have learnt to adapt to staff shortages, bed shortages and lack of resources, however the rapid increase of mental health presentations and relapse in consumers with pre existing conditions has made it very difficult to manage. COVID-19 has required public services partnering with private services, cooperation and problem solving to try and attend to the needs of a community in crisis. My hope after COVID-19 is for more awareness on the fragility of our community especially post the bushfires, we need mental health services more than ever.

  • What are some of the signs people should recognize as indicators that someone needs professional mental health support? 

As a general guide, I would look for behavioral changes, mood shifts, food intake, sleep, levels of motivation and socialization, (even via Facetime during COVID-19) irritability, hopeless or helpless themes in conversation.

Risk issues can be a difficult conversation to have with another person, however if they express suicidal ideas or thoughts of suicide it is really important that they speak with a professional immediately to get advice. Options include your local G.P, telehealth services such as Beyond Blue, Life Line and Suicide Call Back Service. If there are imminent risk issues it is best practice outside of business hours to contact 000 and attend your local Emergency Department. Another challenge we are facing is that consumers that are acutely suicidal are very reluctant to attend hospital or be admitted to an inpatient unit for fear of contracting COVID-19, so there is a huge amount of pressure on community services right now. 

If there are changes in mental state with low risk, for more than 7 days and the symptoms are unchanged or worsening, the first place to start is with your local G.P who can link you to the appropriate support, and if there are ongoing issues, then there are alternative options for pharmacotherapy and more intensive specific therapies.

Secondly, pre existing mental health conditions and managing relapse are very much dependent on the diagnosis. As a community we are predominantly educated on  Depression and Anxiety, Diagnoses such as Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Personality Disorders and Eating Disorders are far more prevalent than most of the community are aware. In many cases most people would not know what to look for. For example, Eating Disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric conditions. I think as a community we are very uncomfortable about discussing suicide, self harm and challenging or difficult behaviours. We need to be more transparent and direct more attention to capture a better view and understanding of mental health outside Depression and Anxiety.

  • Particularly now, as many are struggling with increased stress, anxiety and loneliness, how can we help others in our life who may be struggling with these things, but who we can’t physically be close to at the moment?

Maintaining emotional contact with the people in your life is very important. Even though we may not be physically present, when we have presence, albeit, technology based, it does give us the sense of company and emotional contact. Using Facetime, Zoom and other social platforms are helpful in maintaining a sense of familiarity, connectedness and staying in touch with laughter, thought and conversational skills.        

Encouraging and assisting people in using technology online is also important – Online G.P reviews, telehealth appointments with Psychologists and Mental Health Social Workers.

Similarly, for the elderly setting up an ipad or sending videos if they have tech – or if not lending them simple tech and showing them how to use a device to maintain contact – is really helpful. For the elderly that don’t have these options, family, friends or carers, slip a card into their letterbox, phone them, check in with them. It makes a difference.

  • You believe diversity is important so we get a better understanding and appreciation of where people are coming from and their experiences. What are some of the best and worst things you’ve experienced in your work, where that understanding or appreciation did or didn’t exist?

The best experiences I’ve encountered in my work are seeing recoveries, and those consumers living their best life, having the opportunity to specialize in Eating Disorders and learning so much from clinical information to service design and implementation. Being invited to speak at a consultation group during the Royal Commission into mental health (Victoria) was a humbling experience to meet people you would rarely have an opportunity to speak with. CEO’s of NGO’s, Board of Health and Hospital Directors, the Commissioners – it was great to speak about a variety of my experiences in real time with people of influence and that have the ability to make social change. 

The worst experiences are obviously suicides of consumers we work closely with, and working with severely mentally ill consumers requiring physical or chemical constraint can also be very confronting. Involuntary detention is always an unpleasant way in which to work, however in some cases it is necessary for the safety of the consumer, their carers and the public. 

Mental health is a very difficult and complex profession. We often work in high pressure environments, making serious decisions in short time frames, working with severely distressed consumers and families. It requires a certain skill and knowledge level. We often work alone or in very small teams, and in the long term, on a sub conscious level, the cumulative effect of trauma is manifest through our interpersonal relationships, and workplace culture. I think at times this has led to very negative workplace dynamics which is hard to navigate if you are early on in your career and have not had time or experience to re frame and reflect.

  • Would you recommend a career in mental health to others? Why or why not?

I would recommend a career in mental health. If you are passionate about people, if you are passionate about social justice, and have a legitimate interest in psychiatry then it’s certainly a place where you will get to experience many different bio psychosocial scenarios, learn about different legislation, micro, meso, macro systems and public service structure and development. It is a multi-faceted career path and you do have the ability to specialize in different areas. 

However, in my experience, you will need a rigorous self-care and external professional supervision regime, be open to learning, adjusting and adapting to scenarios because unlike general medicine, Psychiatry is not linear, there are no direct cures only treatments. At times I’ve found this frustrating, but I do have hope that mental health will slowly get the full recognition that it deserves and consumers get the highest quality of service.

About the expert

Sarah Goulding is an Accredited Mental Social Worker and Family Therapist. She has spent the past 19 years working in public mental health services. She has worked on Inpatient units, Community Care Teams, Crisis Assessment and Treatment Teams, Emergency Department Triage, Eating Disorder Treatment and Recovery, mental health service design and development, private practice, telehealth and community consultation groups in Victoria and NSW. Her passion, commitment to quality, education, awareness and advocacy for mental health continues to guide her practice and she is always inspired and motivated by consumers’ strength and resilience, with the hope of continually improving the space in which we work.