When Climate Action Becomes Too Much: Mental Health, Climate Activism, and Community

College is already a pretty stressful place.

Seen as a period of transition, college students are often experiencing independence for the first time, becoming who they want to be in the world. However, this can be exhausting. Coupled with the effects of Covid-19, extreme social injustice and turmoil, and the constant threat of climate change, colleges are facing a mental health crisis. The National Education Association has said that rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation on college campuses have never been higher. Burnout is also common. According to the National College Health Assessment, 80% of college students have reported feeling overwhelmed and 40% reported it was difficult to function.

Among climate activists, burnout is very common. With the increase of climate anxiety, climate grief, and other mental illnesses associated with climate change, many people working in the climate space become overwhelmed and exhausted with the current state of the world. Sometimes, climate advocates remove themselves from the climate movement altogether. At Wellesley College, during the divestment campaign of 2020-2021, many of the people involved in climate action became stressed out and dropped out of student climate organizations. But this phenomenon isn’t restricted to Wellesley, it also takes place in most of the climate organizations I have participated in. As a result there is a large turnover rate, which inhibits the capability of the organization to be successful in its campaigns, programs, and goals.

This to say that college students are facing burnout in many forms. I have found that it is in some of the most intense moments, when momentum is building for an environmental campaign, that burnout is most common. Though self-care is important, it feels awful understanding that momentum can be lost in a campaign that you care deeply about if you step back to take care of yourself. In some cases, the campaign can end altogether, putting into question whether the intensity that led to the burnout was even worth it.

One of the solutions to such burnout is creating community. When collaboration, comradery, and support are valued, people are less likely to become overwhelmed. Workplaces and communities with higher social capital are related to lower burnout. This social capital includes the workplace having a positive and friendly atmosphere, cohesiveness, smooth communication, active discussion and exchange of opinions, consultation with colleagues about daily business, and mutual support in a hectic time. Community ensures that individuals no longer feel alone while dealing with their own climate anxiety or dealing with the agonizingly slow process it can take to make the necessary changes for the climate crisis. And let’s be clear, dealing with bureaucracy is exhausting. Progress can take years to achieve, often much longer than you are a student on campus. Thus, community also serves to act as a form of institutional knowledge, ensuring that campaigns are carried to fruition by passing knowledge from upperclassmen to underclassmen. Creating community also means upperclassmen empowering and mentoring underclassmen so that they know how to make the changes they want to see.

All these reasons are why the Rachel Carson Council National Environmental Leadership Fellowship exists. By creating cohorts of students at numerous colleges and universities around the country, the RCC Fellowship program serves to build and share knowledge, to create a network, and to provide mutual support. It is a community. Students can connect and relate with one another’s successes and challenges and help one another as they pursue various sustainability and environmental projects. I have loved being part of the RCC Fellowship thus far, as it continues to represent just how powerful community can be.

The importance of community is why I am leading efforts to build a Boston Colleges Climate Coalition, particularly with the colleges in the area around Wellesley. Many of our climate organizations have been working on topics like divestment, sustainability, and climate justice. Reaching such goals at colleges takes considerable time and effort to obtain student buy-in, collaborate with administrations, gain approval from Boards of Trustees, and, ultimately, achieve a successful campaign. No wonder many of us feel exhausted and overwhelmed. On some campuses, initiatives have even moved away from larger campaigns, like divestment, because of their mental health effects on campus climate organizers. What we need now is not more projects or more tasks to complete, but rather a community that we can fall back on. People to talk to, hang out with, become friends with, and support one another in our climate initiatives.

At Wellesley in EnAct, the environmental action student organization that I lead, community building is one of our primary goals. While we conduct campaigns like improved waste management on campus, incorporating sustainability training into first year orientation, and taking part in local and regional climate action initiatives, we also spend a lot of time together. What that means is that in the same week of climate organizing, we also do things like going apple picking (as photographed) or hosting movie nights. These events ensure that we build relationships with one another, and it strengthens our ability to conduct successful climate work.

I don’t want to hide the realities of living in our current world. The climate space will continue to be a place of burnout and anxiety. We are living in a climate crisis where we can already see the effects of harsher storms, longer droughts, and hotter days. Progress needs to be made rapidly as we race to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Institutions, governments, and companies need to do better. They will not improve without people pushing them to improve. Nevertheless, it is also critical to take care of yourself because as much as climate action is a race, it is also a test of endurance. And what better way to take care of yourself than surrounding yourself with a community running towards the same climate goals as you?

Cleary, we are stronger together than we are apart.

Suzanna Schofield – RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Wellesley College

RCC Fellow Suzanna Schofield is a senior at Wellesley College, double majoring in Environmental Studies and Peace and Justice Studies with concentrations in water conservation, sustainable community development, and public health. In addition to the RCC, her efforts include involvement and leadership in EnAct, the environmental student organization at Wellesley, Wellesley Climate Coalition, the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, World H2O Hub, Inland Ocean Coalition and Amboseli Wildlife and Communities.