Caroline Ward

Staff Writer

Samuel Boudreau

News Editor


Susan Clayton’s research on climate anxiety inspires students to reflect on climate change’s impact on their lives.

Throughout his life, the natural world consumed the dreams of Nate Netter ’25. “For me, I have really found a love in nature, the outdoors and natural parks,” said Netter. One dream, however, outweighed the rest of them: to climb Mount Everest. However, when Netter thinks of these dreams now, climate change anxiety confronts him. “I get nervous,” Netter said, “because I don’t know if I can do that climb, or do that hike, or go to that part of the world. I get angry because we have been told from a very young age that if you turn off the light, or if you recycle or if you do all this stuff that climate change is not going to happen.”   

Netter’s fears regarding the environment are the center of Susan Clayton’s research as Whitmore-Williams professor of psychology at Wooster. “I began to realize that how people thought about environmental issues was really a psychological issue,” says Clayton. 

On Feb. 6, 2022, The New York Times featured Clayton’s research in a front page article titled “Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room.” The Times’ article centered on a profile of Thomas J. Doherty, a Portland psychologist.

In 2011, Doherty and Clayton published a paper introducing a new psychological phenomenon: “eco-anxiety.” They posited that the damage of the climate crisis was not just physical—it was also emotional. The research study included 10,000 young adults, ages 16-25, spanning 10 countries of varying sizes, geographies and ecological conditions. Clayton said they asked questions like: “What do you expect for the future?” “Do you think humanity is doomed?” “Do you think the future is frightening?” and yes/no statements like “The things I value will be destroyed.”

Clayton says the results were striking: “The majority of people were very or extremely worried about climate change and more than half of the respondents said they felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless or helpless. Less than half of anyone said they were optimistic. Very few people said they were indifferent.” 

From these results, the term “eco-anxiety” was coined. The term, now categorized by the American Psychology Association as a psychological disorder, is defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” 

Clayton’s definition differs slightly. “It’s not a mental illness, and it shouldn’t be defined as one,” she said, citing that anxiety is a normal reaction to problems such as climate change. Clayton defines climate anxiety “as a negative emotional response including things like anxiety, worry and distress associated with awareness of climate change…it can be triggered by different things and it can be expressed in different ways for different people.”

At The College of Wooster, Clayton and Doherty’s findings appear representative of the campus community’s emotional responses to the climate crisis.

When asked how climate anxiety impacts her life, Kira Brehob ’25 said that climate change “shapes [her] concerns for the future.” Brehob continued, “because I wonder what the Earth is going to be like in 10 to 20 years, or even longer. I am sure it is going to be very different, and it is scary to try and plan out a future in a world that we do not know.” 

Some students, however, said that climate anxiety did not impact their view of the future. When asked if climate change is something he thinks about often, Boris Moscardell ’25 said no. “I want to live my best life, and anxiety is part of the journey. Even if it comes from the ecosystem around us, it is still part of who we are.” 

For most students, however, it’s something they think about, even just in passing thought. Kennedy Beursken ’25 thinks of climate anxiety often. “Maybe once a month, maybe once a week,” Beursken said, “depending on if it gets brought up and stuff like that.”  When she starts thinking about climate change, Beursken grows anxious about the future. “You think about it and it’s a slippery slope,” said Beurksen. “What will my children see, what will my grandchildren see and will they be able to survive?” 

Regardless of when or how the emotion is triggered, Blystone, Beursken and Livie Glazier ’24 agree that the reaction is often the same. “I usually cry,” says Glazier. “For me, it’s usually two weeks of being really anxious about it, and then I’ll be like, time to meditate or something.” Beursken says that being proactive, even on an individual level, can help alleviate some of her anxiety. “When I get into the spiral, I start to be more aware of what I am spending money on and definitely work on reducing my plastic waste. I recycle and I’m very eco-friendly.” 

Ben Falk ’24 agrees: “I think that activism is very helpful. It might be all for naught, but you’re doing something, you know that whatever the end result, you know that you’re fighting against it.” Falk finds that  joining a group that understands the anxiety is invaluable. “In joining a group, there’s still a lot of anxiety, still a lot of ‘this is terrifying, I don’t know what to do, I don’t have a clear idea of what we can do to win this’, but I don’t feel hopeless,” says Falk. “I don’t feel despair, because I believe in a theory and in a political project that can, I hope, save us. I don’t give into despair when I know that I’m doing something, and that was really valuable for me.”

Sophia Gieger, an intersectional climate activist who helps organize with climate groups in Washington D.C., speaks to the importance of community. “I find relief and community within the climate activism community because that’s the place where people actually know and speak the truth. [A]s a young person, we are facing the impacts of the climate crisis in a way that older generations never had to and never will,” Gieger said, “and it is being brought upon us by the older generations.”  

Students were also quick to note our generation’s unique relationship to the climate crisis. “Everything is going to be affected by [climate change],” says Brimmer Morrison ’22. “I’m personally thinking about moving to New York, and that’s going to be flooding in the next few years. Other places I’d probably live are also experiencing issues like flooding, and that’s only the beginning of it.” 

The outlook seems pessimistic. “I think there’s hope for anything,” says Beursken. “But if everything does not change, especially within the next 10 years, then I do not believe there is hope anymore.” Blystone agrees: “Unless something big changes, I think it’d have to be an entire cultural shift in our priorities and our pre-set ideas.” 

“I definitely still have hope, but it’s really terrifying, because pretty much no actual, legitimate power is doing anything to combat it,” Morrison adds. “The technology is there, the capital is there, so to say it’s absolutely impossible is untrue, but I think there would have to be a huge structural change if we did choose to actually save the world.”

Clayton remains optimistic for the future, but acknowledges that a secure future hinges on action. “I’m optimistic that we’re taking it more seriously and that we will start to do things about it, but the state of mental health will partly depend on this: do we get the sense that it’s a problem people are beginning to address, or do we stay in a position where people try to deny that it’s even an issue? My hope is that [by defining eco-anxiety], it makes it seem more real to people, more personal,” said Clayton. “People might not necessarily change their lives to save the polar bears, but they might change their lives to save their children.”

Written by

Chloe Burdette

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