It’s understandable that Santa Rosa artist Bill Gittins gets anxious about forecasts that say there will be little rain in the next six months.
A third year of severe drought means a long hot summer and a high risk of devastating wildfires. Gittins and his wife survived what they describe as the “surreal” terror of the 2017 Tubbs Fire, fleeing before the wind-fueled conflagration incinerated his house and artwork, destroyed thousands more homes and killed 22 people, including a neighbor.
With the specter of drought, Gittins is dealing with his own version of climate anxiety. He wasn’t as emotionally traumatized as some neighbors by the fire, he says, but he’s still triggered by the arrival of hot weather. He and his wife try to alleviate their worry over outrunning another potential blaze by closely monitoring apps such as Watch Duty, which gives real-time information about wildfires in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties.
“We’ve got our things always packed,” he says. “Everybody in the North Bay has a go-bag.”
But even Bay Area residents who haven’t suffered such a loss feel the dread creeping in as the hills turn brown and the Sierra snowpack shrinks to its lowest level in some 70 years.
The American Psychological Association describes climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety, as fear of environmental doom. In the Bay Area, it has become easy to believe in doomsday scenarios on days when wildfire smoke chokes the air with particulate matter and turns the sky an apocalyptic orange. Even before the onset of COVID-19, Bay Area residents began learning about sheltering in place from wildfire-necessitated Spare the Air alerts and days when air quality index maps turn scarlet and purple.
“It’s become drier and drier over the years, and it’s become pretty stressful,” says Monica Sain, a community college instructor who lives in Santa Clara. “I have asthma, so I feel this sense of dread when summer comes. There will be fires, and the air is going to be bad.”
3 tips for coping with climate anxiety
Robin Cooper, a San Francisco psychiatrist and member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, says the distressing sight of burned-out Sierra forests makes her feel like it’s no longer safe to bring her children to her beloved mountains. She knows she’s not alone. One of her clients broke down crying over wildfire smoke, saying, “I never should have had my son. I can’t protect him.”
Even the idea of an idyllic California summer has become complicated, says Stanford psychiatry professor David Spiegel. Wildfires now regularly cut off access to beloved vacation destinations, while smoke makes it unhealthy to be outside for days at a time.
“The risk of fire and of smoke in the air, not being able to leave the windows open, or the fear that a fire will destroy your home or even kill you obviously is another stressor in a world chock-full of stressors,” he says.
Climate anxiety isn’t just an abstract concept, say Spiegel and others. The mental health impacts of climate change have become the focus of study by researchers and national policy experts, as part of a larger effort to prepare for public health emergencies caused by weather-related disasters, from hurricanes to heatwaves and drought.
At Stanford, economist Marshall Burke has developed formulas that show links between hot weather and rising global temperatures and aggression, despair and suicides. In a 2013 meta-analysis of more than 50 scientific studies, he and Solomon Hsiang, director of UC Berkeley’s Global Policy Laboratory, found that global warming is connected to a rise in violence, from fights and assaults to outright civil war.
A 2018 study showed that expected temperature increases through 2050 could lead to an additional 21,000 suicides in the United States and Mexico. That study also found an increase in people’s online use of depressive language during hot weather. While Burke said hot weather isn’t a direct motive for suicide, psychiatrist Elissa Eppel, who co-leads UCSF’s task force on climate crisis and mental health, said it disturbs sleep and affects stress and mood.
“When (heat) goes on for days, the impact accumulates,” Eppel adds. “There are spikes in admissions to hospital ERs, not just for health problems but for psychiatric emergencies. The heat also impacts psychotropic medications, so they don’t work as well.”
Such observations coincide with data showing that heat contributes to more deaths each year in the United States than any other climate-fueled hazard, including hurricanes, floods and wildfires, with the harm mostly falling on young children, the elderly and people who are poor or who have pre-existing medical conditions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
In a study awaiting publication, Burke also drilled down on how wildfire smoke affects people’s behavior and emotions. Smoke increases online searches for filters and masks, of course, but people also express unhappiness due to school closures, inability to recreate or disruption of other normal activities.
That distress has hit younger people particularly hard: Nearly 60% of the respondents in a 2021 British survey of 10,000 young people, ages 16 to 25, were extremely worried about climate change; half said they felt sad, anxious, angry or helpless. And anxiety about the “slow-moving disaster” of drought is especially acute among farmers and indigenous people, whose livelihoods, identity and culture are closely tied to the land, said Cooper and Jesse Bell, a professor of water, climate and health at the University of Nebraska.
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But anyone can be susceptible to what’s known as “solastalgia,” which Cooper describes as a “deep grief and sorrow when one’s home no longer brings a sense of relief and solace.”
Pediatrician Bonnie Hamilton says her sense of security was shaken when the 2017 Atlas Fire burned close to her Fairfield home. Three years later, when her family had to evacuate as LNU Complex fires raged through southern Solano County, she was able to quickly grab the family photos she’d boxed up in 2017.
“I never put them back up,” said Hamilton. “You feel that when that happens once, it could happen anytime.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with feelings of depression or suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, round-the-clock support, information and resources for help. Reach the lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Find three tips for coping with climate anxiety here.