Mental Toll of Climate Change on WU Students

| Contributing Writer

Climate change is as much of a mental health crisis as it is a technical challenge and political problem. The idea that our lifestyles are poisoning our universe’s only oasis of life is profoundly disturbing. Even more distressing is how humanity’s response is like the proverbial frog in boiling water – simply acclimating to an increasingly dangerous environment until its complacency becomes a death sentence. 

Gen Z, more so than any other generation, grew up understanding this reality. This understanding turns into paradoxical emotions: guilt and pride, fear and hope, cynicism and trust. 

WashU students are not immune to this stress, and feelings of helplessness and anxiety about climate change can be found throughout the university, including amongst those who don’t necessarily consider themselves environmentalists. 

“It’s kind of hard to feel hopeful,” said first-year Dominique Bradshaw.

“[There’s] virtually nothing you can do just on an individual basis,” senior Nat Hall concurred. “[Climate change] just feels like such a big problem. All the headlines are like ‘sorry, it’s already irreversible.’ It’s also not super reassuring that so many WashU students, who are theoretically being taught to be the leaders of the future, are also kind of pessimistic about it.”

So, what do people do with those feelings? Some students shared their coping mechanisms. 

Sophomore Caroline Fong said, “I compartmentalize. Sometimes you can’t focus on it all the time and I think that’s okay.” 

Others take a different approach. “Dark humor at times. The other day I was joking with my friends like ‘oh, Florida’s going to be underwater in 20 years,’ said senior Will Hutson. 

Yet, not everyone has succumbed to feelings of helplessness. Some students cope by turning their climate anxiety into action by working on positive community projects.  

Senior Hannah Hirsch advised, “Look in front of you and do what you can. I love helping run SWAP, a free student-run thrift store. I love helping save people time and money, and saving waste from landfills. I can see my work directly impacting my community and making people happy. It’s impossible to visualize the global effects of climate change, but you can get involved in your community.”

Several students noted how difficult it is to conceptualize climate change. As sophomore Eli Perlin said, “Climate change isn’t this tangible thing you can always look at. It’s this slow process that will cause future bad consequences if we don’t change our actions.”

Several other students commented on this “back of the mind anxiety,” as sophomore Olivia Garman coined it. “It’s not something I think about on a daily basis, but it comes to the forefront whenever you read about forest fires or floods. It’s something that we’ve grown up with. We don’t know a world without climate change – it’s just part of your worldview.” 

Climate change as a part of one’s worldview encapsulated the understanding that climate change is not a lone event. It won’t happen at a particular time and place. Rather, climate change is a context. It’s a “back of the mind” understanding that every year will likely be hotter than the previous, a faint feeling of a future dramatically different from today. 

“I’m from Georgia and I love snow,” said sophomore Jamie Kornheiser. “We don’t get a lot of it, but I feel like it’s been even less as I’ve gotten older…It’s a tiny example, but it makes me think about how the world is heating up so much that people won’t experience different seasons.” 

Within the greater context of overarching issues of climate change, small actions like recycling or using paper straws feels futile or even silly. 

Maybe it is silly. “But I’ll still compost my cup, shit,” laughed senior Trey Rudolph–a light moment amidst a sobering conversation. But a pearl of truth lies within every joke, and Trey’s comment suggested a way of managing some of the anxiety surrounding one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced. 

Composting a cup may seem insignificant, but it represents a conscious choice to make a difference, no matter how small. It’s a reminder that there are ways to turn  anxiety into action. As Trey said, “Even if it feels like it’s not doing much [I’ll still compost], because if everyone thought that, then no one would do anything about climate change. We have to model the life we want everyone to live.” 

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