Transcript of the episode “Climate anxiety: a generational plague”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:17] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Lian Zeits, co-founder of the Climate Mental Health Network. Lian is working on his Masters of Divinity at Naropa University. Welcome, Lian.

[00:00:29] Lian Z: Thank you for having me. The issue of climate anxiety among students is getting increasing attention.

[00:00:37] Jon M: What is climate anxiety and how is it affecting young people? 

[00:00:42] Lian Z: Thanks so much for that question. Climate anxiety is increasingly a hot topic right now, and it can be in short term described as the symptomology of anxiety as it relates to the climate crisis. But what we know is that it actually is often normal responses to an existential crisis that many young people are experiencing that manifests as angst, fear, doubt, and hopelessness in the face of the climate threat.

[00:01:16] Jon M: And how is this impacting decisions that students are making in terms of, I read, that it impacts some students in terms of even where they want to go to college or where they want to live. What are, what are you finding in terms of actual decisions that students are making? 

[00:01:35] Lian Z: Yeah, so across a number of surveys that have come up, it’s definitely been high on young people’s radar that climate change is impacting their future. And in a study of 10,000 youth globally, over 70% said that they had fear of the future due to climate change. Over 50% said that they were concerned about having children because of the climate crisis. So I think both affecting young people’s immediate decisions. So young people who are experiencing the climate crisis firsthand, whether it’s due to floods or earthquakes or fires, it’s radically changing their daily lives, and whether that’s through home disruption or their schools being destroyed or the family business not being able to be run because of the weather. There’s a range of direct impacts that are being faced by young people that, their decision is changing every day. And then there’s a lot of young people that I think are looking towards the future and trying to navigate where they see themselves in a world that may not have the same natural world that it does today, and what that means for them. 

[00:02:49] Amy H-L: The homepage of the Climate Mental Health Network site says, “To heal the planet, we have to collectively heal ourselves.” Who is the we and what does healing ourselves entail?

[00:03:02] Lian Z: Thank you. Yeah, we were really intentional about that statement in trying to 1. Center the response to both mental health and climate change as a collective issue that is not necessarily the onus of one individual to solve, but that these problems happen within systems and within communities, and that the responses to them need to be in a community effort. We believe that everybody has a role to play to support their own mental health and to support healing the climate. And so whether that is taking initiative to have self-care and prioritize your own wellness, or, taking environmentally sustainable actions that support the wellness of the earth, we think that it’s an all hands on deck moment for humanity and the natural world. I think that’s the “we” we were talking about. 

[00:04:04] Jon M: Often when we talk about mental health, it’s analogous to physical health, or a lack of pathology. Yet one could argue that young people who aren’t anxious about their future simply aren’t paying attention. When is anxiety in response to a real threat healthy, and when isn’t it?

[00:04:26] Lian Z: So often within the mental health world, we talk about mental illness occurring on a spectrum from wellness to illness. And sometimes that point where depression becomes an illness is not so specific. And we all fluctuate on that path throughout our lives, and it’s really the times in which that we are debilitated from what we would consider healthy and normal functioning for ourselves that something moves. Or when it’s young people, often the adults in our lives see that we’re in an unhealthy, debilitated state, out of healthy functioning, whatever that may mean for us. That’s when maybe feelings of climate anxiety that are normal and an appropriate response may move to something that needs more specific attention and care than conversation.

[00:05:22] Amy H-L: And what are the components of wellness?

[00:05:26] Lian Z: Historically, when people have thought about mental health, it’s often out of a deficit based understanding. So the lack of normalcy, the lack of typical behavior, the lack of right functioning. But there’s a big movement to 1. Challenge what a neurotypical mind is and what it means to be normal or typical in a world of diverse people and diverse minds. And so what we’re really pushing is looking at concepts of wellness and flourishing as core to mental health, and so what does it mean to have a balanced, wholesome life that doesn’t negate the ups and downs of one’s mental health? I go through bouts of depression in my own life, times when I’m more unwell than I am well, but my mental health is both those lows, but it’s also the more well times that I’m finding vibrancy in my life and community and that I’m able to navigate the world from a place of wellness rather than strain or debilitating feelings that prevent me from living my life.

[00:06:38] Jon M: How can teachers foster wellness in their classrooms or in their interactions with students? 

[00:06:46] Lian Z: I think teachers do this every day already as they’re the people that are on the front lines with the majority of young people. I think the ways in which the traditional education system has prevented teachers from accessing wellness in different dimensions has been related to the lack of social, emotional, and mental health training and content and awareness that exists within schools as a whole.

And traditionally, the stigma of mental health made it hard to talk about. Also, teachers didn’t really focus on the emotional and social development as much as they did the academic development of students. And so the major shift right now is to look at students more holistically from their academic lives, their emotional lives, their familial lives, and, and take an approach that really values the whole human being that you’re engaging with. And then ultimately, prioritizing self-care and modeling good mental health and wellness to students is ultimately one of the best things a teacher can do, and that’s really taking care of themselves and finding ways to work on their own mental health and wellbeing as they, as they teach.

I think it’s important to say that it’s not the responsibility of teachers to address all students’ mental health. Teachers are the ones that spend the majority of time with students in their early life, and so it’s important that mental health be embedded into those interactions and those dynamics so that it can support positive wellness and wellbeing and pick up on students who may be struggling. Often the first witnessing of a student in distress, is, it can be teachers.

[00:08:32] Amy H-L: So to clarify, are you talking about teachers or students practicing self-care, or both?

[00:08:40] Lian Z: I think both. Right now there’s a big movement for integrating social emotional learning and mental health dimensions into mainstream curriculum, not as its own health track, but interwoven moments of insight and wellness that teachers can embed into the classroom. So for example, for elementary students, there’s a key emotional development phase that teachers work on to build hope, to build resilience, to build problem solving. And oftentimes, historically, those tools and assets that students would get weren’t associated with, “Hey, this can also help you practice good mental health in your life too by working on challenges, finding what makes you hopeful, using expressive arts and drawing.” The association in classrooms wasn’t always made to the wellness dimensions of these things and so I think as the stigma is breaking down and it’s more appropriate to talk about mental health in schools, teachers can always find those nuanced interconnections that allow mental health to come to life outside of a specific lesson plan or something that.

And students, it’s always, I think, finding creative ways for students to find peer engagement and activity and belonging that support positive mental health early in life. And talking about it with parents is something a teacher can do. Students exist within a bigger system. And what we’re seeing now is that with the climate crisis is that those conversations around climate change, around mental health, and around how to support young people are all becoming interwoven. So the Climate Mental Health Network is an important intersection for us. We can talk about these things in the same conversation in support of student wellness and student mental health, and also teacher wellness.

What I think is gonna be challenging in the future is that current science says that the impacts of the climate crisis are gonna be more widely felt than what we’ve already experienced. So heat levels rising, extreme weather events and, and then collective awareness on these issues is gonna be rising too. So I think the key message is how do we equip teachers and students and school systems as a whole to be prepared for the mental health impacts of what’s to come?

[00:11:11] Amy H-L: Would you talk about the work that your organization does to support teachers and administrators in this work? 

[00:11:18] Lian Z: Yeah, so right now we are taking a research based approach to identifying what tools are appropriate for teachers to use in the classroom. And we’re currently embarking on a one year research project with the National Environmental Education Foundation where we’re doing participatory design workshops with educators to build tools that support educators to address the complex emotions that students experience in relation to climate change. And what that looks is… It may be activities that help validate student emotions related to climate change. It may be a gardening activity or things that use the natural cycle. To also have conversations about mental health, one early age activity that we’re looking at is using the weather to talk about your inner emotions. So asking students describe what they’re feeling as a weather pattern, “Am I feeling rainy or windy inside?” And using elements in the natural world to express emotions. And so some of these tools are very straightforward, but it’s creating more access for educators to resources that really intentionally bring mental health into climate change discussions.

And then we’re doing advocacy with school systems to have school-wide climate mental health programming that empower student voices that doesn’t place the onus on teachers themselves. School-wide initiatives, school gardens, creating more access to green space. Even having plants in the classroom. So all of these interventions at the school level we’re advocating for as important. 

Another specific project is, I’m on a team working on, a K through 12 environmental justice curriculum for the state of California, and we’re working with grade level curriculum writers to ensure that there are moments throughout the curriculum that mental health is explicitly integrated. And what that looks is that on a lesson plan that a teacher gets, there will be specific call out boxes that highlight how that activity supports positive mental health and how they can integrate discussions on mental health into that classroom activity. We’re doing that with every grade level, which will be the first time that mental health has been integrated with environmental justice and that level of integration. And so those are a few of our projects that we’re working on. 

[00:13:58] Amy H-L: Do you think that you can get something like that passed in California? So I worked on a bill this past legislative session that would require climate education in California public schools. It did not get anywhere. Teachers, I think, are already feeling overwhelmed. So what would be your approach to getting something this really accepted? 

[00:14:27] Lian Z: In this case, this project is being funded by San Mateo County so the County Board of Education has the bandwidth to deliver this at a first stage. How it is scaled and reaches other neighborhoods in California, I think is to be determined. My assessment of what’s happening is that there are two major forces at play. One is a lot of innovation and community appetite in school systems for climate mental health content and integration. Then there’s both statewide and national legislation coming out around the importance and the priority of climate change education across school systems embedded within STEM and other sorts of structures. Where there’s tension is in the middle where there are school systems and counties that are resistant to one dimension of that. So one dimension could be that there’s philosophy around teaching about climate change that is unacceptable to certain school systems so they’re not allowing that to happen. Another is that low funding and priority for mental health within school systems is also creating tension. So those two polar ends, I’m hoping, will crunch the middle into a point where we’ll see opening for integration of this work. But it’s an uphill effort, I think, right now in terms of doing it, what I anticipate is that future national level education mandating climate change education in schools will ultimately lead to state and county level changes that improve the issue. We’re not there today. And, and there is a wide array of resistance to this. I personally am most concerned with getting young people the mental health resources they need to navigate life’s challenges as soon as possible. And so if there’s a certain county that’s resistant to teaching about climate change, but they’re asking how do we help our students deal with the emotional trauma of the recent floods we experienced, I would want to figure out a way to work with them even if they’re not ready to explicitly say they’re teaching about climate change. In practice in uptaking something in an entire system, that’s where those things become real barriers, I think, because that’s a policy question. It needs to be written into legislation that allows the money and the priorities to flow.

[00:17:00] Jon M: You talk about the federal level. My understanding is besides the politics of it, which right now obviously would be very interesting, that it would be very difficult for the government to actually mandate climate instruction. But they could incorporate it in terms of incentives, as part of the federal money that goes to schools. Did you have specific thoughts on what that would look in terms of if there were a national policy? 

[00:17:33] Lian Z: Yeah. And the incentive structures are what we’re working with now. There’s a lot of new resourcing for environmental justice, education and, climate. It hasn’t been necessarily used as climate change education. What’s used as in is environmental justice and environmental education that lends itself towards climate change education. But it’s interesting how the languaging shifts. I think at a national level, what I am trying to advocate for in my work, and this is slightly different than STEM educators and environmental educators because I think the environmental education movement is pushing for strong mental health and climate change integration into environmental curriculum, so STEM activities in biology and these things.

What I’m more concerned with is whole school mental health transformation that values the impacts of climate change on students’ health and wellbeing. I think both are going to happen within the same years of time. Where I think my work in advocacy lies is trying to get school systems and administrators to see the value in bringing these conversations into the school setting.

There are other people that are really working on curriculum mandates. And where within the education system itself, a student will learn about how heat is related to greenhouse gas emissions and how carbon and all of that, those cycles work. Our work is one step away from the nitty gritty of climate education, because we’re really saying that the systems right now are not supporting student mental wellness as best they can. Climate is a hot, intense issue on young people’s minds that if not addressed is a missed opportunity to support student wellbeing. And we’re seeing how impactful it is. And so I think that’s where both from the direct and indirect impacts of climate change, so young people experiencing extreme weather need support and young people experiencing hopelessness and fear of the future also need support. And so, how do we help them?

[00:19:47] Amy H-L: You’ve spoken about the importance of having Gen Z participate in leadership roles. Why is that important and what does that look like? 

[00:19:57] Jon M: And what is Gen Z, for any of our listeners who don’t know the definition? 

[00:20:03] Lian Z: Yeah, so , it’s always flexible. So Gen Z is after millennial generation, and I think it’s 24 and under right now are the, the Gen Zers of the world. There’s even Gen Y that’s under them and or Gen X. It’s important because the way that they are growing up and living in the world is more aligned with the world of the future than their adult counterparts who experienced it. So the rapidly technology informed, high-paced media, intense globally connected hyper information universe that young people grow up and live in is a vastly different world than their adult counterparts. And they are in touch with those realities in a way that can inspire innovation and insight in ways that can’t. And I think there’s a lot of adults in the world who are seeking purpose and meaning in what they’re leaving for the next generation. And so making sure that young people and adults are talking together and connecting is so important. A lot of our work is bringing younger voices into leadership settings so that senior leaders can listen and learn from, from young people who are really understand and attuned to these issues. 

At the Climate Mental Health Network, we’ve created a Gen Z advisory board that pretty much operates as a traditional advisory group that have paid roles and opportunities, providing input on all of our projects. And then we create opportunities for consulting of young Gen Z advisors with other organizations. So for example, the Smithsonian Museum of National History hired the Climate Mental Health Network to run focus groups with our Gen Z advisors to inform an upcoming exhibit for 2024. And so what we’re able to do is create a resource for people working in the climate mental health space who say, yes, we understand that Gen Z insights are important, but we don’t have access to them. We don’t have thoughtful ways to engage them. And what we’ve been able to create is a structured, equitable, and thoughtful way of engaging, really brilliant, inspiring young people who can offer a lot of insights to people working on these issues. And so that’s been our pathway. Any programming about young people should have their voices very involved in the process. And so I think a principle of practice for us around what does it mean to have inclusive activities that are actually not replicating exclusion or power dynamics that take people’s voices out of play. Since our programming is youth focused, we really feel that young people should be centered in how we build for them. So I think that’s the principle we operate from. 

[00:23:03] Amy H-L: You’ve mentioned that you’re not trying to occupy a clinical space. Could you talk a little bit about that? 

[00:23:10] Lian Z: Yeah. So one of the conceptual shifts around mental health is that it’s reserved to the biomedical clinical sector and that discussions, conversations, support, reason, knowledge, wisdom, are all held within a biomedical white coat led structure. That is quite limiting to the wider potentialities of mental health and wellness that happen in community and schools and our families and our relationships where, where mental health is actually very vibrant. And approaches that often rest in the biomedical system say that, okay, we need to identify certain pathologies and then get them to specialized care to receive support. So that track within the climate mental health movement would be people with climate anxiety or climate related problems are only going to psychologists and psychiatrists to get help. The non biomedical centered model is actually empowering everyday people in communities everywhere with the frontline tools to navigate these complex stressors.

And then, destigmatizing the idea that we all have a role to play in supporting each other’s mental health, and it doesn’t require going to a psychologist or a counselor to have a conversation about mental wellness or mental health with peers, with friends, with family. And that the solutions for our mental health may not be biomedical as well. They could be cultural, they could be nature-based, they could be more ancestral practices that are important to us. That’s back to the beginning of this conversation around what is climate anxiety and how do we respond to something that is seemingly normal. There’s a lot of healing potential within our own selves and within our own communities and, and we’re inviting people to look there alongside the biomedical system. I think we’re not building ourselves up for that. 

We are working with the Climate Psychology Alliance and the American Psychological Association to educate psychologists and psychiatrists and others on the impacts of climate change on people’s mental health and have professionals be versed on these issues. We definitely feel that’s important, but we know that the future of addressing this issue is so widespread that the solution is not going to be people going to specialized care. It’s finding resources and support in their communities and their networks and the systems that they engage, whether it’s their workplace or school as the frontline of defense.

[00:25:50] Jon M: You talk about the importance of learning from indigenous communities without co-opting their experiences and knowledge. Can you talk about that? What do you mean? 

[00:26:00] Lian Z: Well, I think one is– part of the education of learning how we got to a climate crisis is understanding how the history of colonization, European settler colonialism, the slave trade, and the violence and oppression that’s happened to indigenous peoples across the world is intimately related to the nature of our climate crisis today. Whether it’s through the extraction of of earth’s resources or the prioritization of capital gain on resources versus living in symbiotic relationship with nature and the earth. One of the things that many indigenous communities value is the idea of the world being a living entity that is sacred and intimately connected with their own sense of aliveness. And in mainstream western capitalism, we’ve lost that value of this living being that we’re cutting into every time, that hurts us as much as we hurt it if we’re not living in reciprocity with the natural world. There’s a lot of wisdom that can be learned from that. At the same time, indigenous communities are still being violently oppressed today, and we should, especially white practitioners like myself, be wary of what it means to say, oh, look at all this great wisdom of this group, yet they still don’t have sovereignty, resources, and agency within this system that I benefit from. So it’s both a personal question, and challenge the field to think about that as well. I think similarly, In my divinity studies, I’ve been diving a lot into mindfulness and meditation, other sorts of Asianic traditions that have a lot of wisdom that are being used in in Western countries, in North Americavery often. I have a similar Inquiry about what it means to really value the cultural wisdom and do it justice versus co-opt these things into trends and norms that often fuel radical individualism in North America. Back to that how do we all heal and how do we collectively participate in addressing this crisis. Shifts in that mindset from radical individualization to more collectivist values that see us all working together on these issues.

[00:28:32] Amy H-L: So clearly the changes that we need to make to slow climate change are systemic. That said, individual choices, not eating meat and taking public transportation, collectively can make a difference. In addition, do these actions promote wellness? 

[00:28:54] Lian Z: Yeah, so what’s been really exciting is that there’s growing research highlighting the cyclic relationship between actions that address the climate crisis and positive mental wellbeing. And so some of this is based on the science of when you identify problems in your life and take action to address them, you fire positive endorphins in your body that make you feel good. A natural remedy to feeling bad is taking action on something. And interestingly, that same logic applies with the climate crisis. When people do take small and large actions for themselves, there’s a lot of research saying they start to feel better about it. Their views on how bad the crisis is haven’t changed, but the despair and stagnancy that they were feeling in that moment, that can lead to depression and deeper anxiety, was remedied by taking action. And they can find more things to be grateful for and hopeful for in the present in that way. At the same time, there’s a mental health crisis that has been crippling many people across the world before climate was even a hot issue. And maybe this moment of taking climate action can also support people to improve their mental wellness and to spend more time in nature to offset the screen time that is also crippling us.

I really see them as valuable cyclic things that addressing climate can improve your mental health and then addressing your mental health can improve the climate and vice versa. So it’s not necessarily one. They have this complementary compounding effect that, even if someone wasn’t in interested in their mental health, they may find positive mental health benefits when they’re taking action to support the [inaudible].

[00:30:46] Jon M: Students have very different life experiences. How do these impact their degree of climate threat and how should they impact efforts to support students? 

[00:30:56] Lian Z: Thank you. And I think in certain circles, I’ve been in part of conversations that have said climate anxiety is a white kid’s issue, that other aspects of livelihood or communities that have been dealing with existential threats for longer than climate change is being talked about, they deal with it differently. Maybe it’s not even on their radar because maybe young Black children are more worried about violence of police and that there’s often a privilege in being able to worry about a future thing that’s not happening to you. And so I think 1) from the view of this impacts different communities in different ways. And we often know that frontline and BIPOC communities are the ones who experience the first and worst of climate crisis and are the ones that have the least access to mental health resources when things do happen. And so in that regard, there’s a clear equity issue at the center of both climate and mental health that impacts young people’s experiences of it. And I think the young people in the world today that are living through extreme weather, In the Gulf States who have experienced hurricanes and floods and had to relocate homes or had their whole community ravaged by a fire. Or if you look in other parts of the world, extreme flooding and heat, whether it’s in Nigeria or Pakistan or the Philippines, it’s so disruptive to life that I think those young people are dealing with a lot of psychological and environmental challenges that other young people that are more privileged, who haven’t had to experience that, but are really scared about the future. They’re also experiencing something very real. I think that’s the interesting thing that we’re working on. How do we actually create spaciousness for the diversity of these experiences and not limit or belittle one versus the other, but say these are all part of that broad canvas of climate related mental health. 

[00:33:09] Jon M: Thank you, Lian Zeitz of Climate Mental Health Network.

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