On March 3, Sustainable Wellesley and the town of Wellesley’s Health Department hosted Dr. Kelsey Hudson to speak about climate change distress. Sustainable Wellesley, which is based in the town of Wellesley, is focused on promoting sustainability within the town and opened this talk to Wellesley College students. Dr. Hudson is a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. She also runs a private practice specializing in treating climate distress, specifically in children and adolescents.
Phyllis Theerman, an organizer of the event and a member of Sustainable Wellesley, realized that the stress of climate change on young people needed to be addressed when she saw a student break down while asking Massachusetts State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem to take action on climate change. She then reached out to Dr. Hudson to set up this event.
Dr. Hudson began her talk with an overview of how mental health can be impacted by climate change directly and indirectly, as well as how it affects our physical health. She then asked the audience how climate change made them feel and shared a graphic of the most common reactions around the world.
“We are biologically inclined to focus on negative emotions; we’re often hearing about climate anxiety and ecological grief. Those are certainly really important, but it’s also very natural to feel indifferent, disinterested or neutral or feel positive or welcome feelings, like motivated or joyful,” Dr. Hudson said.
According to a study shared by Dr. Hudson, more than 60% of 16-25-year-olds surveyed around the world reported feeling sad, afraid or anxious due to climate change.
“These are not kids coming into a clinic, these are not people seeking therapeutic support, these are individuals who are just going about their everyday lives. From that same study, we also learned for the first time that climate distress was linked with the perception that governments are not responding adequately. There is a relationship between inaction on a systems level … and greater climate distress,” Dr. Hudson said.
When distressed, many children and young adults turn to the people closest to them to talk about their feelings. Dr. Hudson noted that this can be difficult when these people are climate change deniers or are ignorant of these feelings. She mentioned an app, Cranky Uncle, that can help people talk about climate change with people in their lives who may not believe in it.
Dr. Hudson then moved to discussing strategies to help cope with climate change distress and empower oneself.
“Without actually acknowledging how we feel, we will not do well trying to take sustainable action because we will burn out really quickly,” Dr. Hudson said. “If we have stronger beliefs in our own ability to overcome stress, that can help lead to more effective coping, like engaged coping versus avoidance.”
To build resilience, Dr. Hudson recommended talking to others who believe in climate change, joining organizations that are taking action and reflecting on the difficulties one has already overcome. She added that having a role model that takes meaningful action to address climate change can enhance a young person’s belief in themself. She also encouraged people to foster optimism and “connect to a place.”
“Building up your connection to your places does not have to be going out into nature in a really intense way; it can be anything that allows you to cultivate a connection to your surroundings,” Dr. Hudson said.
Sustainable Wellesley is holding an online event discussing Sustainable and Equitable Housing on April 14th. Theerman also encouraged Wellesley students to join the Fridays for our Future gatherings on Friday afternoons in front of the Wellesley town hall, as well as to reach out to Sustainable Wellesley if there is an initiative they are interested in planning.