During “Earth Month,” we are encouraged to celebrate our planet and take climate action. Beyond the April celebration, let us raise environmental consciousness, honor nature and demand the rights of ALL living beings to a hospitable home: our Mother Earth. Systemic oppression and colonization have affected not only the health and well-being of oppressed populations but also of natural ecosystems and non-human living beings. That is why climate change cannot be effectively tackled without a focus on social and environmental justice. Meaningful environmental activism involves working on our mental health. After all, the societal paradigm of overproduction, overconsumption, and a disconnect from the rest of nature is a root cause of climate change engraved on our psyche. For us to effectively cope with the mental health impacts, we must first address the context of historical trauma to develop and sustain strategies that balance climate action with wellness.

Addressing historical trauma 

Historical trauma is defined as collective intergenerational traumatic experiences (e.g., colonization, genocide, slavery, forced displacement) lived by a cultural group that has a history of being systemically oppressed. It triggers accumulative emotional and psychological wounds passed down through generations. Healing from historical trauma involves acknowledging past injustices, culturally sensitive reconciliation processes, and systemic changes to promote equity and justice. It involves understanding the complex interplay between historical events, individual and collective experiences of trauma, how these experiences shape our perspectives, opinions and emotions, and a continuous process of self-reflection paired with community empowerment. This process is a delicate and imperfect balance between introspection and addressing the context. It must include recognizing, facing and processing the toxic mental schemas within each of us that relate to historical trauma, while also embracing self-love, self-respect, and collective care. This balance can help us avoid excessive positivity, denial, or self-blame in order to demand accountability assertively, without solely focusing on the external and blaming the circumstances or others, which gives them the power and responsibility to control how we feel.

Balancing climate action with wellness

The following are some examples of effective strategies we can use to achieve this balance:

  • A decolonial approach to mental health
    • Shifting from individual to collective well-being
    • Moving from adjusting to empowering
    • Becoming self-determining actors instead of passive victims
  • Revolutionary rest: giving ourselves enough time to rest and sleep without feeling guilty. 
    • Climate action can become unsustainable or unhealthy without proper rest and pauses to recover energy. Demanding systemic changes so that cultural norms and exploitative practices of employment or forced labor stop limiting the right of all persons to have enough time to rest is necessary.
  • Focusing on bottom-up instead of top-down approaches: supporting or joining community-driven efforts to address social determinants that increase vulnerability to climate change, and grassroots movements led by those directly impacted by environmental injustices to drive real change
    • Some examples are community projects that build social cohesion, protect biodiversity, provide renewable energy for the community, or agricultural projects led by the community focusing on food sovereignty, sustainability, and agroecology practices. 
  • Supporting, promoting, and working with local businesses following principles of Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE).
  • Embracing a mindset of inclusivity and solidarity
    • Recognizing that we are all interconnected and that our fates are intertwined with the health of all living beings and our planet, we must work together across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines with persons willing to respect us and work with different opinions. Fostering a sense of belonging and collective responsibility that breaks both external and self-imposed restrictions on who we interact with is key.  
  • Collective care: From “I” to “We”
    • Approaching climate action with care and compassion, focusing on the interdependence of living beings.
    • For communities impacted by historical trauma and other social determinants of mental health such as poverty and racism, the impacts of climate change can feel even more overwhelming. It is essential to acknowledge and recognize these understandable feelings instead of defining them as mere illnesses. A culture of trust-building, hope, and solidarity is essential for healing.
  • Being, not just Doing: working on developing mindful approaches that allow us to reconnect with our inner being, redefine our identities beyond the walls of adjectives and definitions imposed on us, and ground ourselves in the present moment. 
    • Getting out of the automatic Doing mode of completing tasks to achieve goals and thinking that our thoughts are equal to reality allows us to experience the present moment, to let go of the pressures of “should” and “have to” mentalities, to open our minds to different perspectives and to realize that our thoughts and feelings come and go, fostering mental freedom and curiosity.
  • Learning and preserving the knowledge and customs of our ancestors: protecting and embracing cultural and spiritual practices that empower us and help us feel connected to our culture
  • Re-defining nature: shifting from an egocentric to an ecocentric mentality in which we see ourselves as one manifestation of nature and equal to other living beings, understanding that our race and other living beings have value by just existing.
    • Valuing nature as a teacher and healer can help us strengthen our mental health by immersing ourselves in natural environments, practicing mindfulness through observing plants and animals, learning new skills, building reciprocity, etc. Practices such as forest therapy/ bathing (“Shinrin-Yoku”), horticulture, and animal-assisted therapies can help lower stress, improve our health and build social cohesion. 

We can confront the challenges posed by climate change effectively if we embrace the power of diversity,  unity, and solidarity. Let us do what we can to protect the livelihood of every being residing on Earth by boldly facing historical trauma and striving for environmental justice. As expressed by Brazilian artivist Mundano, “We are not defending nature; we are nature defending ourselves!”

Additional Resources:

  1. The Ecopsychepedia: psychological factors & the climate crisis
  2. Force of Nature: organization led by young persons turning climate anxiety into action
  3. Agroecology & Climate Change, Cooperative Climate Futures Project 
  4. Good Grief Network: peer-to-peer support to build empowerment in a chaotic climate
  5. Decolonizing Psychology curriculum
  6. Climate Psychiatry Alliance
  7. Centering Young Black Leaders in the Face of a Looming Climate Crisis, Community Commons