The Untold Toll Of Climate Justice Advocacy On Mental Health

As a climate justice activist, one of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with is the intense criticism I give myself about the actions I take that impact the environment. A year and a half ago, my family purchased a second home. It was a dream come true for all of us, but as I started to look around, all I saw was the carbon cost of our new, dual-home lifestyle. Thus, I tried to get my family to decrease our carbon footprint by suggesting solar panels. With subsidies and tax credits that the government provides, getting solar panels installed would be affordable for my family, and the return over time would be huge.

I am a climate justice activist, my parents aren’t climate deniers, and we both support environmental causes of all sorts; however, I knew it would be very hard to convince them that solar panels would be the “right thing” for us. I felt really guilty about the impact my family was making, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how I could expect others to take climate action when it would be hard in my own family. As a youth activist, I know that these feelings are shared by many in the climate advocacy community, even though the responsibility of the impacts of the climate crisis should not just rest on consumer shoulders. Massive corporations, such as fuel and electricity companies, are the biggest perpetrators of the climate crisis, and continue to emit greenhouse gases despite their knowledge of the existential impacts of the consequences.

In the activist community, it’s easy to feel that activists need to be perfect role models of our cause, thus setting impossibly high standards for ourselves. Especially with the environment, where the capitalist and consumerist society we live in forces most people to have at least a small carbon footprint, it can be very difficult to feel good about the choices we make. Spencer Berg, founder of Fridays for Future NYC and a senior in high school, said that his mental health has definitely declined as a result of his activism, mostly because climate activists are “cursed by the knowledge of how severe climate change is,” consequently making him feel that what he was doing “wasn’t enough.”

However, other climate activists see it a bit differently. Bela Filstrup, a junior in high school, said that she doesn’t think “climate activists need to be perfect,” but that they do need to “think critically” about the choices they make. Balancing these choices can be very difficult and demanding. Being an activist can put you at odds with the people you love, take up an overwhelming amount of time, and cover topics that might be hard to deal with — all things that can take a toll on mental health. Unfortunately, activists’ mental health is not something that is often headlined in mainstream or social media, but it is definitely something that should get more time in the spotlight.

In the end, I was able to convince my parents to invest in solar panels for our home. I saw this as a really positive step forward, but it still hasn’t made me feel anywhere close to comfortable with my environmental impact. Every day, activists, myself included, struggle to fight for climate justice, even though we are still contributing to a rise in emissions. When the first scientists were raising attention about climate change, corporate polluters like Exxon and Shell were aware of the problem we faced, but instead of trying to help fix it, started pouring money into lobbying groups and think tanks to boost company profits and continue emitting greenhouse gases. Since that time, they’ve continued to ignore the science and follow their greed, causing far more damage to the planet than individual consumers. Until we pass government policy that holds corporations accountable for their emissions and creates emissions standards, it will be hard for me and other activists to feel confident about our relationship with the environment. We can all keep fighting for these policies, and we can all also keep taking small actions everyday to move forward, taking “action on a microscopic scale” to help ourselves feel better.

Anna Kathawala is a rising junior in high school in New York City. She organizes with many youth climate organizations both locally and regionally, and is deeply passionate about the intersection of the climate crisis, racial equality, and the economy. When she’s not organizing, she enjoys running, biking, baking, and reading!