New York therapists see surge in eco-anxiety as smoke fills skies: ‘Every client addresses it’

<span>Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

As Kim Saira scrolled through TikToks showing a curtain of yellow smoke descending over New York, she felt a panic attack coming on. Though she lives an entire coast away from the crisis, Saira began to fear for her parents, who are essential workers in Queens.

“I had to completely turn off my phone, because I was getting so anxious,” said Saira, a Los Angeles-based healing coach. “My chest hurt, I felt like I couldn’t sit still, and I started pacing around. I couldn’t do any work.”

Any fears New Yorkers may have felt about the unfurling climate crisis kicked into overdrive this week, after smoke caused by Canada’s devastating wildfires broke US records for bad air quality. The urban dystopia stoked an existential stress that therapists call “eco-anxiety”.

The Climate Psychology Alliance of North America, a group of therapists, researchers and artists, keeps a directory of practitioners who specialize in the burgeoning field. College campuses offer guidance counselors for students experiencing stress over the climate crisis, and institutions offer certification programs in climate psychology.

Related: New York’s essential workers bear the brunt of poor air quality from wildfires

The Sati Center for Buddhist Studies in Redwood City, California, runs an 18-month training program for “eco-chaplains”, who “work to support people in developing healthy, compassionate and mutually supportive relationships with each other and the natural world”. One of its graduates, the film-maker Lindsay Branham, now works as an “eco-doula” in Los Angeles, shepherding clients through their fears of extinction events.

Devastating wildfires in California and Oregon have led west coasters to seek out climate therapists. Thomas J Doherty, a Portland-based psychologist, co-hosts a popular podcast called Climate Change and Happiness, which disperses advice for coping with stress and finding hope in a bleak future. But the field has been slower to catch on in the east coast, where the effects of the climate crisis could be subtler – until this week.

“Most of the anxiety New Yorkers feel is not related to climate; it’s related to the fast-paced lifestyle,” said Sarah Jornsay-Silverberg, executive director of the Good Grief Network, a support group for people experiencing eco-stress. “But we’ve noticed that the appetite for climate mental health services in New York is really ramping up, and we’re seeing more of a demand for it. The fires have triggered a sense of fear, rage and despair, which is a completely healthy response to what we’re witnessing on Earth.”

The climate crisis is a main talking point in Saira’s weekly therapy sessions. “I have learned through therapy that I have a responsibility to do my part, but the blame isn’t on me – it’s on the institutions that perpetuate it,” she said.

Wendy Greenspun, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and Climate Psychology Alliance board member, said: “I don’t think I’ve had a single client since the smoke started who did not address it.” She added: “There appears to be a collective realization that this is the beginning of our new normal on the east coast.”

Woman sits in subway with mask
A subway door opens on an orange sky in the Bronx. Photograph: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

The word “apocalyptic” came up in most of Elizabeth Greene’s sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, as clients tried to express the sadness they felt about the smoke. “Many of my clients have wondered if they are staring into the beginning of the end of a way of life,” she said. “There is grief associated with climate change, as people adjust to so much loss.”

As the smoke hit its peak on Wednesday, Melanie Berkowitz was in session in her downtown Manhattan office with a client undergoing the mental health treatment technique EMDR. “We were there to address trauma from a near-death experience she had survived, when the sky turned orange and the smoke seeped through my window,” she said. “We couldn’t help but comment on the absurdity of the scene.”

Individuals who live with post-traumatic stress struggle to find a sense of safety and calm in their bodies. “My sense is that the smoke crisis, and the experience of feeling trapped and unsafe, will trigger more distress for some,” Berkowitz said.

Hannah Nugent, a Brooklyn-based practitioner, said that about a quarter of their clients come in for issues related to eco-anxiety. “Hopelessness is a feeling that I am helping my clients manage and cope with this week,” they said. “A lot of them are grieving the loss of a hopeful future, because it is increasingly hard for many of them to imagine a secure future.”

Related: Surviving the smoke-pocalypse 101: Californians offer advice to New Yorkers

A few years ago, most of the people who utilized climate therapists fit a certain stereotype: they were young and they were activists or people who felt a strong connection to the natural world. Now, Jornsay-Silverberg said, there’s no “type” of client.

There are grandparents trying to cope with the world their grandchildren will inherit, and parents struggling to find ways to talk to their children about it. “Some people are just burned out from work that they once loved, because they’re overwhelmed with the state of the world, and it’s impossible for them to find joy,” Jornsay-Silverberg- said.

White, middle-class millennials are more likely to specifically seek out a climate therapist, Nugent said, but nearly all of their clients end up talking about it at some point during their sessions. “The more people experience the crisis first-hand, the more they realize they need to have support to talk about it,” they added.

Greenspun said she usually got more inquiries into her climate-conscious therapy practice after periods of intense weather. “I’ll get an uptick in referrals after a heatwave, when it’s 90 degrees for a number of days,” she said. “These events can break down the defense mechanisms people build up around their climate fears.”

Not every discussion in the climate psychologist’s office is entirely negative. Some of Greenspun’s clients expressed a glimmer of hope this week, saying that the smoke might open more eyes to the immediacy of the crisis.

“There is this feeling that more people are waking up to this, and could become engaged in activism,” she said. “If more people realize that this is serious, there will be a greater sense of solidarity.”