This time last year, I was really ill. I didn’t know it at the time but I was experiencing a severe and prolonged episode of depression, with a dash of anxiety and panic thrown into the mix. Over a period of months, ‘mental health’ quickly transitioned from being a trendy social media hashtag to a very real experience of confusion, distress and loss. Twelve months on, after various mistakes made and lessons learned, and I’m in a much better place. I have a solid support network, I found a new (much less stressful) job, and I’m able to speak more honestly and openly about how I’m really doing. I have learned a lot from hitting the bottom and building myself back up. And I’m a much stronger person for it.
So, what has this got to do with the environment? Well, before the pandemic’s full impact hit the UK, I’d already been exploring with a few friends and colleagues how we could look after ourselves, mental health wise, during what was going to be a challenging year for UK-based campaigners. We had COP26 (the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow which had been planned for November, now postponed), a new government, a different politics, a new set of MPs and a US-election on the horizon. On top of that, we know that the 2020s are the decade in which we will need to see a step change in action on climate and nature if we are to prevent the worst impacts, the pressure on all of us felt pretty huge.
It’s vital not to let fear and panic take over
Then came Covid-19. It feels almost impossible to capture the scale of the changes now happening across the world because of the global pandemic. From a mental health perspective, there is the immediate grief and sadness that comes from losing loved ones, the anxiety and worry of our daily lives being turned upside down, as well as the fear of how the economic shock will affect our livelihoods and those of our community in the years to come. On a national and global scale, this is also such a massive political, economic and social moment – it is historic – and my sense is that how humanity chooses to respond now will shape our future for decades, if not centuries, to come. No pressure then.
I know I’m not the only one in our sector and movement who has felt overwhelmed by the enormity of what is happening and by the necessity for all of us to respond to this crisis – as we try to on climate change and biodiversity loss – with hope, courage and a belief that a better world is still possible. But I firmly believe that to do so – to respond with our full humanity in this time – we must keep ourselves mentally well. It is especially true for those of us with experiences of mental ill-health, but it is the same for all of us. We must not let fear and panic rush us into knee jerk responses. Likewise, we must not let anxiety and worry hold us back from engaging with (and trying to shape) the colossal changes unfolding.
We should be talking about how we feel
Looking after our own mental health is not something best done alone, we really do need each other. Opening up about our emotions, never mind experiences of mental illness, is pretty much always a tricky thing to do, even with our closest family and friends. Meanwhile, in the workplace, whilst there has been a lot done in recent years to open up conversations about mental health, the experience of actually doing so remains much rarer. In this difficult time, with so much pressure on all of us to turn the tide on the climate and biodiversity crises, now heightened by a global event with unknown political and economic impacts, it may seem like the last thing we should be doing is talking about how it makes us feel. But that doesn’t quite sit right to me. It doesn’t seem right that, in the face of all of this change, of all the hardship, grief and uncertainty of this time, we would not make our emotional life a priority.
Through my own experiences of mental illness, I’ve learned that if we can be honest about how we’re feeling, if we can be vulnerable in front of our colleagues – as well as our friends and family – then we can find much greater strength, individually and collectively to do what we need to do. Doing so almost certainly means sniffles and tears on awkward Zoom calls in the short term but, in the long run, we’ll be able to be there for each other when we really need to be, we can lift each other up through the hard times and celebrate each others’ victories, we can break out of our organisational bubbles and political echo chambers (where it can feel safer), and we can find joy amidst what can often feel like the bleakest of outlooks.
Check in and don’t hide the worry
So here’s my advice: take an extra 15 minutes at the start of your Zoom calls to really check in with the people you’re working with (especially people in your own organisation); ask about their family, friends and neighbours; check in on those with elderly parents or who you know struggle with their mental health; and, above all, don’t hide your own struggles or worries. That’s not to say don’t have boundaries, but do let people in when and where you can. Because if we work well together, with kindness and care, embracing the difficulty and sadness of this moment, holding on to the hope of a better world to come, then maybe we will come out of this stronger, more connected and better able to articulate and work for our vision.
As the epic writer and climate scientist, Dr Kate Marvel wrote last week: there are no silver linings to this pandemic. I agree with Kate, this is nothing but difficult, messy and hard. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come out the other side with our collective sense of humanity and possibility strengthened. If a few awkward Microsoft Teams calls is all we need to do that, I’d say it’s at least worth a try.