Sarah Aronson had been a therapist for a decade when wildfire smoke thick enough to overwhelm air quality monitors descended upon her home in Missoula. In the summer of 2017, a gray-brown haze lingered in the picturesque university town, obscuring the mountains that hem it in and turning the sun the color of a poppy flower. No measurable precipitation fell on the Garden City the entire month of July that year, contributing to what was then Montana’s warmest summer on record.
Aronson said her mood tended to wax and wane with the thickness of the smoke. She started to see that pattern in her clients, too, noticing that they were more likely to report being irritable, anxious, depressed, or some mix of the three on especially smoky days. Some were experiencing more conflict with their partners. Others told her they were feeling more fearful or having trouble sleeping.
“Folks from all kinds of identities and perspectives and ages and other presenting issues were expressing similar things,” she said.
One piece of the puzzle contributing to that distress? Climate change, which is leading to longer and more intense wildfire seasons like 2017’s. Researchers have found that the planet’s shifting climate is also becoming a growing source of concern for Montanans, who are increasingly likely to describe climate change as an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem. In 2022, 45% of voters responding to a 2022 Colorado College poll made that assessment, as compared to 26% in 2011.
In a 2017 report, Montana State University researchers attributed warmer temperatures, dwindling snowpacks, longer and more active wildfires and an increase in the duration and frequency of drought to land-use changes and rising greenhouse gas emissions, which have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere by 47% since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Authors of a supplemental report focusing on human health impacts anticipate an increase in climate-related weather events such as rapid spring snowmelt, flooding and severe summer drought will contribute to immediate and acute episodes of distress that could involve loss — of one’s home, livelihood or support network.
Aronson grew up in Juneau, Alaska, three miles from Mendenhall Glacier, which researchers say is shrinking as the climate warms. She said there’s nothing like watching an iconic glacier retreat to root climate change’s impact firmly in a person’s awareness, but the 2017 fires made her realize she could use some help understanding how climate change interacts with a different landscape: the human psyche.
She started reading up on the subject to help her clients grappling with the immediate, acute challenges wrought by climate change as well as the more philosophical, existential knots created by humanity’s profound impact on the planet.
Aronson found her way to the Climate Psychology Alliance, which works to build psychological resilience in the face of climate change and support efforts to slow it. She’s now one of three Montana therapists included in its directory, a resource for people searching for mental health practitioners who understand climate change’s ability to derail the sense of safety, meaning and purpose available to individuals and their communities.
“The two terms that we kick around in this community are climate grief and eco-anxiety, though the broader term might be climate distress,” Aronson said. “The anxiety shows up when it’s anticipating the hardship and thinking about the future [whereas] depression is leaning back into the past — what have we already suffered, the grief, sluggishness and paralysis that comes with [contemplating] how to approach climate change.”
Beyond Montana, the intersection of climate change and mental health is increasingly a concern for academic researchers. The International Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 report emphasized climate change’s links to stress, trauma, grief, anxiety and suicide — a first for the IPCC, which formed in 1988. Last fall Google reported that searches for “climate anxiety” increased by 565% compared to the year before, and “solastalgia,” a relatively new term describing pain associated with the loss of a home or beloved place, is gaining footing in behavioral health circles. A recent study appearing in the medical journal The Lancet found that 39% of young people in 10 countries, including the U.S., said climate-oriented anxiety makes them reluctant to have children.
Cascade Tuholske, a Missoula native who researches climate change, urbanization and food security at Columbia University’s Climate School, said he struggles with the notion of having kids, even though he appreciates how it might deepen his commitment to the cause by raising the stakes — putting more “skin in the game,” so to speak. Tuholske, who will be teaching environmental geography in Montana State University’s earth sciences department this fall, said the topic tends to incite worry for him, particularly since he knows better than most how extreme heat and wildfire smoke can wreak havoc on the human body.
“If my partner were to be pregnant during wildfire season, how freaked out would I be? Would I want her to wear an N95 mask? But I don’t want to be neurotic,” he said.
According to the Climate Change and Human Health in Montana report released in 2020, increasing periods of extreme heat and reduced air quality from wildfire smoke will worsen respiratory and cardiopulmonary illness. The effect of heat and smoke exposure is especially pronounced for populations with chronic physical health conditions as well as the very young, very old or pregnant, with research linking smoke exposure to both spikes in ER visits and low birth weights.
The Climate Change and Human Health in Montana report also notes that “increased stress and increased mental illness are under-recognized but serious health consequences of climate change.”
Tuholske recently described his struggle to face climate change in a way that didn’t completely upend his psychological equilibrium for Outside magazine. In that essay, he recounts spending much of graduate school weeping under his desk and trying to fend off panic attacks between classes, where he was learning about how climate change is predicted to make some of earth’s most populated areas inhospitable to human life. One particularly acute episode sent him to the emergency room, another to the student counseling center.
“It got to the point where I contemplated suicide,” he wrote in the essay, which also explored how spending time with his father, an environmental attorney who continued to work through a terminal cancer diagnosis, helped him regain more stable psychological footing.
Tuholske’s father continued to work deliberately and without being daunted by the tasks in front of him despite his illness, Tuholske said. But his father also balanced that with other pursuits, taking time to wet a line in the Blackfoot River, ski in the mountains outside of his home and take the family dog on romps through the woods. Tuholske tried to model those rhythms in his own life.
Such activities are part of what Aronson refers to as an “ethic of care” — commitments to stay in relation to beloved people and places, even if a sticky, heavy grief wells up and takes you out for a day or two. She also says that it’s important to make climate change and its impacts “speakable,” especially with young people, who are experiencing widespread psychological distress connected to climate change.
“Maybe adults are thinking about it and making change, but they have to speak that to the kids, so they know they’re not alone in their fear and worry … that they don’t have to face this future all on their own,” Aronson said. “The worst piece about feeling climate distress is feeling isolated in it.”
A 2021 American Psychological Association report examining climate change through a mental health lens emphasizes the importance of social connections and taking action, for example by getting involved with a non-profit, professional association, or faith group that’s working to address climate change. The report notes that such efforts can do double duty by advancing climate solutions while also supporting the mental health of the individuals involved.
Tuholske said he’s found the writings of Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh helpful as he endeavors to become more mindful. He tries to focus on how he’d like to live his life in the days, months and years ahead. He said he also finds some relief from his anxiety by zooming out to the 10,000-foot level to take stock of where he can — and can’t — influence an atmosphere he shares with the billions of other people on the planet. Many of those other people, he notes, are experiencing the effects of climate change much more acutely than he is and have fewer resources to mitigate its impacts.
For her part, Aronson said she’s encouraged by how frequently climate change enters her day-to-day conversations. She said she continues to find ways to reduce her own carbon footprint and gives herself permission not to execute those changes perfectly. She also takes heart in the human capacity for creativity.
“I think that the future is unwritten, and if our brains aren’t overloaded with stress, we can use our good imaginations to forecast the future,” she said. “And it will involve change.”