Our ecologic mental health crisis

A few months ago I wrote an article about ‘Climate Grief’. It created a bit of stir and led me to think more deeply about the impacts trauma might have on our ability to respond to ecological crises.

As part of that exploration I came across an excellent piece on ‘Climate Trauma’ by Zhiwa Woodbury. I was particularly fascinated by the idea that for the first time in human experience we are inside trauma as it is happening. There will be no post-traumatic stress, just perpetual traumatic stress.

I then had my own taste, in a way that surprised me by it's stealth. A friend sent me an article by Catherine Ingram which was immediately appealing through its reference to the author’s personal relationship with the late Leonard Cohen. I was drawn to reading it through my love of Leonard’s dark art, only to find myself in deep water.

It wasn’t until about ten days later that I realised just how depressed I had been as a result. It named a few fears that cut through me - mainly as a parent. Despite my life’s work around precisely these kind of issues, I found myself dragged under. All the common symptoms of anxiety. Wow. The dive stopped when I was reminded about the futility of holding on to such overwhelmingly bad news: what can I do with this information that I am not already doing? How does contemplating these terrifying possibilities change me beyond making me feel despair and disempowerment?

Today I came across this outstanding piece of journalism about the impacts of climate change on the people of Greenland. Something deeply grounding and powerful about these personal experiences of fear and bewilderment. The final few paragraphs reminded me of an article I published about language as part of the Topographies and Tales art project some years ago. A symptom of catastrophic change is when we run out of words to describe what’s happening to us. When our experience of the world falls beyond our ability to describe it. And thus off the map we go, dumb-struck, into the unknown.

For so many reasons, it’s time for a real and comprehensive engagement with our ecological mental health crisis. If we are to act on the scale required, we must find ways of being inside trauma without being overwhelmed by it.

Photo: Annie Spratt

Photo: Annie Spratt


  1. Danielle Levy29th November 2019

    I appreciated this piece. Thank you David.

    1. David Key29th November 2019

      Thank you Danielle. You’re welcome.

  2. Jodi Canti17th November 2019

    I found this extract from Patrick and the Cat who Saw Beyond Time very beautiful but also sad.

    ‘When the wind blew from the west, embracing the mountain’s thoughts, it seemed to carry to the Boy a whispered reminder not to forget how to tread lightly on this earth, not to forget that he was to walk as gracious guest – and the Boy’s heart ached. He knew the song from this timeless soil was unheeded by most of the white people who were too busy to hear the earth’s whisper above the buzz of chainsaws, thunder of bulldozers, and dreams of dollars in ever increasing bank balances.’

    1. David Key18th November 2019

      Thank you Jodi.

      I especially like the part about walking as a gracious guest.

  3. Andy Kenworthy29th August 2019

    Great piece. I too am unnerved by the trauma and stress that seems to shadow me these days. It’s not that I even notice. I feel like I am coping, acting and doing. But then tiny details – I get psoriasis on my lower leg, a physiological sign, I talk to myself in snatches of reassurance and swearing, I drink and then give up spasmodically…

    To quote you back to yourself: “A symptom of catastrophic change is when we run out of words to describe what’s happening to us. When our experience of the world falls beyond our ability to describe it. And thus off the map we go, dumb-struck, into the unknown.” That captures it exactly. It comes also from the political. How do I explain, even to myself, that someone like Donald Trump is supposed to be one of the most powerful people in the world? The chaos of Brexit, the encroaching chaos all over? For decades I have habitually taken stances on my surroundings – judged, asserted, decided on my activism or at least my opinions. Now my stances move from just trying to stay standing, to dancing with depraved hilarity to standing as a mourner a the funeral of my children’s future. I struggle, dumbfounded, with how best to respond.

    1. David Key30th August 2019

      Thanks Andy. That’s an arresting sentence, ‘a mourner at the funeral of my children’s future.’

      The conversation here is part of the cultural therapy that I feel is so desperately needed. To face directly into the dark fear – but not alone. To get beyond the overwhelm, the nihilism and the fatalism.

      I think there are strong parallels with palliative care: in the end, the way we would choose to live with the immenant threat of death, is the same way that often defies it. The process can define the outcome and even when the outcome looks bleak, the process is intrinsically rewarding – whatever happens.

  4. Mark28th August 2019

    I can empathise, I too go through dull and dark days when I simply despair at the stupidity of our species and the powerlesness I feel – the inability to make any significant difference. In the end all we can do, all I can do is to focus on the good things around me, the great friends I have and all the wonderful work that is being done by a small handful of concerned and committed people. Balance the darks days with wild optimism!

    As James Stockdale said “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” In the most simplest explanation of this paradox, it’s the idea of hoping for the best, but acknowledging and preparing for the worst. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stockdale#The_Stockdale_Paradox)

    Thank you

    1. David Key28th August 2019

      Hey Mark,

      Fantastic to hear from you and to find your camaraderie in the face of such tricky times. I love that quotation. Thank you.


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