Climate Anxiety Disproportionately Impacts Communities of Color—And Cultural Stigmas Around Mental Health Increase Their Burden
But an uptick in mental health resources and a passion-fueled young generation are breathing new hope into the conversation.
When Chicken Little thought the sky was falling down around him, he panicked. Growing up, it was hard to relate to the tiny chick's immense terror. But now, as an adult, it’s a panic I know all too well. Due to climate change—with the deterioration of the ozone layer and increased natural disasters—the sky really is now falling down around us, and an increasing number of people are feeling the weight of the Earth's uncertain future.
Climate anxiety, as defined by Yale professor and clinical psychologist Sarah Lowe, PhD, is distress about climate change and its impacts on the landscape and human existence. Climate anxiety affects all communities, social classes, and races: According to The Commonwealth Fund, at least 68 percent of U.S. adults have reported experiencing anxiety around climate change. Every person’s experience with climate anxiety is incredibly valid. However, the effects of climate change—and climate anxiety with them—disproportionately affect communities of color. Yet, because of the stigma many communities of color have against mental health conditions and treatment, members of these communities aren't set up to get the support they need.
Many people in predominantly white, middle and upper-middle class communities are anxious about climate change because they're worried about the future. Will my children suffer in tomorrow's world? Their approach to curbing this anxiety is to switch to electric cars, promote using reusable containers, and speak with their therapists about how to cope with the looming climate dread. I admit, I also do many of these things. I recycle, use my emotional-support reusable water bottle, and talk with my therapist about my anxieties and worries surrounding climate change. I’m lucky that the effects of climate change don’t impact my day-to-day existence and I can focus on what the future holds.
This isn't the case for many communities of color. Rather than worry about conditions they'll be faced with in the years to come, these communities deal with the anxiety of climate change in their daily lives. Systemic factors like the lack of political representation, pre-existing health conditions, and poor constructions and building materials are disproportionately prevalent in communities of color. And research shows that these and other factors contribute to a "climate gap," wherein underserved communities of color and low-income communities experience greater levels of harm from climate change impacts. (The cruel irony is that these people often contribute to climate change the least.)
One natural disaster can devastate a community for years, making it even more difficult to manage the effects of climate change. For instance, communities of color, especially Black communities, are still rebuilding after the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005. In 2015, the Black population of New Orleans was still 110,000 fewer people than before Katrina; this reduction is attributable to the fact that tens of thousands of homes and businesses remained destroyed. Surviving seasons of extreme temperatures without adequate electricity, access to clean water, or the ability to rebuild homes and businesses are stressors that communities of color live with on a daily basis. And, these are the communities typically forgotten after the initial coverage of the disaster. According to a 2022 report by Media Matters, only 21 percent of guest appearances in climate segments in nightly and morning news shows were people of color, compared to 79 percent of guests who were non-Hispanic whites. The lack of voices from communities of color on mainstream TV shows leads to the lack of in-depth follow-up coverage needed to highlight the impact of climate change on these communities.
In these communities, struggling with your mental health or getting treatment for a mental illness is seen as a kind of personal failure or weakness.
It's an understatement to say there's a lot to be anxious about. So while climate anxiety does touch all populations, the unique combination of environmental challenges, the immense impact these have on individuals and communities, and the cultural stigmas that surround mental health struggles is specific to communities of color.
As a person of color, I'm subject to the ways many communities of color stigmatize mental health issues. In these communities, struggling with your mental health or getting treatment for a mental illness is seen as a kind of personal failure or weakness. This can be incredibly isolating, and that feeling of disconnection can become an added burden that people of color deal with on top of their climate anxieties.
I know the feeling of shame that can be paired with admitting that you are struggling with mental health and it makes the situation even more complicated. Growing up in a socioeconomically disadvantaged community, my perception of who went to therapy was skewed. The majority of people in my community looked down on those who sought out help for their mental health. It took at least a decade for me to, personally, shake that stigma and seek mental health help.
The cultural stigma is also coupled with limited access to mental health resources for many of these communities. A disproportionate number of communities of color are underserved and underrepresented. This means that they do not have the ability (most likely financially) to receive mental health support. So, even if a member of these communities overcomes the cultural stigma and decides they'd like to seek professional support, the chances are they still won’t be able to receive the help they need to manage their mental health struggles.
This isn’t to say there isn’t hope. Hope is an important aspect of climate anxiety that tends to be overshadowed by the doom and gloom of climate change.
First, more mental health resources in the past three years have become accessible for people of color, including: free support groups sponsored by local hospitals and organizations (like the Blackstone Public Library in Chicago), smartphone apps such as The Safe Space and Liberate that are designed to teach people of color about mental self care and meditation, and free resource libraries that include tips and practices on managing mental health struggles for people of color, like the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective and the Asian American Health Initiative Resource Library.
Also, younger generations in communities of color are breaking down the stigma around mental health by talking about their mental health struggles, their need for support, and how the culture in their communities has made it difficult for them to find and receive mental health help. And they're taking action against climate change at its root. For example, students at Long Beach Polytechnic High School have started an initiative to make their school 100-percent fossil-fuel-free by 2030. These teenagers are fighting for their future as 16-year-olds. They are witnessing the effect climate change has on their daily lives and have been spurred into action because of it. Many Gen Zers are using social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok to spread information about the environment and climate change and advocate for better conditions, support, and solutions-based climate coverage for their communities.
These young advocates recognize that bringing awareness to not just their communities' struggles with climate change and climate anxiety but also to how their communities persevere in spite of these challenges is important for generating support and hope. They show how important diverse perspectives are in regard to climate change and how each community, race, social class, and individual person experiences its effects differently. For example, Vic Barrett, who is of Black and Indigenous Honduran descent, was spurred into action at age 14 after experiencing the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy on his community. However, he uses his experience to fight for all who are affected by climate change to provide a world for his kids where they do not have to.
Highlighting communities of color and their intersection with climate change and climate anxiety is an incredibly important step in bringing diverse voices and experiences to the forefront as well as providing a wide range of resources for these communities. Climate anxiety affects most of us, but remember: Even though it may feel like the sky is falling, there's hope that we can make it better.