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What is Ecological Distress?

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RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a transcript of this episode.

Welcome back for the Season 4 premiere of RadioEd, a University of Denver podcast. On this episode, Matt chats with Graduate School of Social Work professors Julia Senecal and Kristen Greenwald on the impacts of ecological distress, particularly on young people.

This conversation covers weather disasters, how they are taught in schools, and what individuals and groups can do to cope in a world where climate chaos is increasingly infringing on daily life.

Show Notes

Julia Senecal earned her MSW and Animal-Assisted Social Work certificate from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, where she concentrated her studies in Sustainable Development and Global Practice. Julia completed her Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration with a focus on Nonprofit Management at the University of Central Florida. Before beginning her graduate studies, Julia worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs and as a public school teacher.  

Kristen Greenwald works with people of all ages, but specializes in children, teens, and young adults, having spent the past decade of her career working with this age group. This includes children and adolescents experiencing trauma, depression, stress, anxiety, divorcing families, family conflict, bereavement, separation anxiety, performance anxiety, solastalgia (stress from environmental change), and ADHD.

More information:

July 2023 brought record-high temperatures, devastating floods across the U.S.:

What is Climate Justice? And what can we do achieve it?:

Institute for Human-Animal Connection:

The Center for Sustainability:

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Emma Atkinson (00:05):

You are listening to RadioEd.

Matt Meyer (00:07):

A University of Denver podcast.

Emma Atkinson (00:09):

We're your hosts Emma Atkinson.

Matt Meyer (00:10):

And Matt Meyer.


Just a week ago, a massive storm system formed over the Mediterranean Sea and barreled into northwestern Libya. The ensuing floods in the semi-arid country caused catastrophic damage, bursting two dams and sending floodwaters cascading into the coastal city of Derna where more than 5,000 are dead, thousands more are still missing, and tens of thousands are homeless. With all three totals set to climb even higher in the coming weeks. It was the horrific end to a summer marred by global disasters that experts say are intensified by climate change. The wildfire in Maui was made worse by what researchers call flash droughts or an acceleration of drought conditions in a short period of time. Hurricane Hillary made landfall across the Baja Peninsula, the first along the West Coast since 1997. Hurricanes and tropical storms are rare in that part of the Pacific Ocean because of relatively cool water temperatures, but instances of disaster are likely to increase as the planet warms.


In Phoenix residents suffered third-degree burns just from falling on the pavement or touching doorknobs. Fires engulfed multiple providences in Canada, [inaudible 00:01:12] Northeastern United States in smoke and sending air quality plummeting across North America. Floods in China, fires in Greece, heat waves in India, and on and on and on. In fact, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration marked 2023 is the year with the most billion dollar weather disasters in July. A list that includes a series of hailstorms that pelted Denver in June. The 15 events across all four time zones in the [inaudible 00:01:40] US, included eight severe thunderstorms, three hailstorms, two tornado outbreaks, one blizzard and one flood.


Those not immediately impacted by the disasters are left with a creeping sense of anxiety, wondering not if, but when, a climate-related disaster will hit their hometown. At college campuses across the US, including the University of Denver, classes or workshops on climate anxiety are popping up as younger generations enter into the new reality of regular extreme weather events. On the season four premier of RadioEd, we dive into ecological distress, what we can do about it, its acute effect on younger generations and how social justice enters the equation. We'll chat with Graduate School of Social Work professors, Julia Senecal and Kristen Greenwald, both of whom research and teach the subject of climate anxiety or as Senecal says ecological distress.


In simple terms, what is climate and ecological anxiety?

Julia Senecal (02:32):

First off, I just want to open that term up a bit and say we're now shifting to using the term eco-distress. Climate anxiety pegs these emotions into just the whole of anxiety, when in reality we know that the emotions that come alongside climate chaos and global environmental change are grief, depression, distress, guilt. So again, we want to use the term eco-distress versus eco-anxiety now. This is a recent shift as well. So these emotions are what humans and especially youth these days are feeling as they learn about and are literally facing climate chaos.


Climate chaos is a term we use to refer to as we just talked about, these major climate disasters that are happening pretty much every other day. We are now shifting to using the term instead of climate change, global environmental change to make sure that people are understanding that it goes beyond just climate change and temperatures rising, which is of course an issue that we need to pay attention to and has gotten a lot of attention. But we also want to make sure that folks are thinking about deforestation, ocean acidification, massive biodiversity loss. All of these major events are impacting the way that psychology is unfolding, and of course impacting how we're reacting. So these emotions are in reaction to that, and they're actually... To reframe them, they are a very healthy response to what is going on in terms of social ecological collapse in this world.

Matt Meyer (04:23):

How do we fix it then?

Julia Senecal (04:25):

What a great question.

Matt Meyer (04:27):

But in all seriousness, is there a way to comprehend and come to terms with this? Is there a way for people to lean in or a way for them to get help or a way for them to find a way to battle through some of these feelings and this pressure?

Julia Senecal (04:42):

Yeah. Yeah, it's a great question and I hesitate to use the term fix because that implies that these emotions are a result of broken humans or an unnatural response to something that is really real. So instead, the way we're framing it in our work at The Center for Sustainability and at the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, which is within the Graduate School of Social Work, is leveraging these emotions and our natural human experience and really making sure that we're validating our students' emotions and supporting them in really harnessing their grief, their anger, their sadness to take hopeful and intentional action.


All that to say, I think you just alluded to this, that it's really important to validate and to create spaces for our students to feel their feelings and move through them in a way that is supportive of their experience, and also support them in building community around that too. And I would say that is the number one way to quote-unquote "Fix," or at least address or support these emotions, is support our students in knowing that they're not alone and that their emotions are quite healthy and that this is a response to a crisis, and it actually means that they're quite compassionate, beautiful human beings that are having a natural response.


All that to say, backing up a minute, when we're thinking about building interventions for our students or creating interventions, we want to think about this. If we're looking at it from a social work lens, from the micro to the macro. So micro meaning that one-on-one, how are we supporting our students and getting that actual mental health support that they need to process these emotions and support them if they are in crisis. So we're actually partnering with the Health & Counseling Center on campus to support their mental health professionals in getting the training that they need to support our students in those psychotherapy settings. So that's that micro level.


And of course, the other thing I'll say is that we are starting a community of practice on campus as well out of The Center for Sustainability to support staff and faculty on campus in not only incorporating global environmental change concepts into their curriculum because we must be teaching our students about these issues from the get-go. They're not receiving it in K-12 education, so we need to make sure that they're getting it here, and we're supporting the staff and faculty in presenting this information in a way that is not just doom and gloom, but also supportive of these students in processing their emotions in class. So that's that meso level, so in that safe classroom space. So we're supporting instructors in building safe, strength spaces and presenting this information in a trauma-informed, or at least a trauma-sensitive method.


And then I'll back up to the macro level. We're supporting students across campus in, again, building that community and supporting them in knowing that they're not alone. So this year we're excited to start rolling out a series of climate cafes, which are modeled... Have you heard of climate cafes?

Matt Meyer (08:06):

I have not heard of the climate cafes. I'm actually really curious about this now.

Julia Senecal (08:10):

Yeah, so they're modeled after death cafes, which are... It's a very wild name, but death cafes are really just a casual space. Usually people gather in literally coffee shops to just chat through what they're experiencing after the loss of a loved one, and it's not facilitated necessarily by a mental health professional. There is a little bit of a framework to support people in processing, but really again, it's just a safe space. There's no action expected at the end.


So climate cafes are simply that, a safe space for people to come together who are experiencing climate distress of any kind, process those emotions, be in the company of others who are also going through X, Y, Z emotion and not have that action focus at the end, it's not... I know I mentioned a minute ago that it's important for us to harness these emotions, but the climate cafe really is that space to validate and be in community, which is an intervention in and of itself and a resource for people as they're thinking about how they can take their next steps. We can't transform or change the world unless we're really addressing what's going on with ourselves first.

Matt Meyer (09:25):

Awesome, and this is going to date me a little bit, but my first exposure to climate, it was called climate change at the time, was An Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore when I was in high school, and I feel like that was my first big eyeopening experience to all of this. For folks younger than myself, they've grown up with this at the forefront of everything. It's the big political and social issue of the day. So how does this anxiety affect young people in particular as compared to people who have had this exposure closer to adulthood?

Julia Senecal (09:57):

Great question, and I'm really glad you're asking that because it's so critical that we acknowledge that Gen Z and now a generation alpha coming up behind them, this is the issue of their day. So it's really... I just want to start by saying that intergenerational solidarity is a critical component of this. We need to stand with our youth and elevate their voices and support them in whatever way we can. So I just want to highlight that intergenerational solidarity is so important, and I so appreciate this question because we need to acknowledge that our youth are struggling. And I also want to highlight a really important piece of research that I just... It's my light cocktail party. Back pocket information that I think is really important for everyone to know.


So Caroline Hickman and a group of researchers did a study in 2021. They surveyed 10,000 young people, ages 16 to 25 in 10 different countries around the world, really just to gauge the youth's perception of global environmental change and how it's impacting their day to day and also their perception of their government's response to it. So very interesting. More than 50% of these respondents reported each of the following emotions, sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty. And then more than 45% of respondents said that their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and this was in 2021. I would imagine that if we redid this survey, we'd definitely be above 45% of respondents saying that this affects their daily life and functioning. And in fact, we're just rolling out a study on campus to assess our own students' level of eco-distress. So we'll be surveying undergraduate and graduate students to really get a better grasp on how they're feeling about these issues so we can better serve our DU community.

Matt Meyer (11:58):

Awesome. We've talked a lot about the way this affects students and the academic backing behind it here at the University of Denver. From an academic perspective and from somebody who teaches this kind of stuff, what's the value of teaching young people about climate anxiety in an academic setting? What is helpful about physically teaching them some of these concepts and some of these issues?

Julia Senecal (12:17):

It is on higher education to make sure that our students are receiving this information so that they can go forth into whatever sector they're going into, whether that's business law, animal protection, social work, et cetera, with the facts about the direction that this world is headed in in terms of social and ecological issues. It's really important that we are empowering our youth, not just with the information because we could throw information at them all day long, but how are we supporting them, and again, using this information and leveraging their emotions to make change? We're going to be supporting staff who are implementing programming across campus, whether that's the Health & Counseling Center or new student orientation, et cetera, to integrate these concepts and to acknowledge like, "Hey, y'all, we know that you're experiencing this. Even if it hasn't come up today, we're just going to name this, and then also talk about what can we do with this information?" So empowering our students with the skills that they need to make positive and intentional change whatever that looks like to them in this moment. And of course, thinking about their future longer term.

Matt Meyer (13:28):

Awesome. Julia, I appreciate you taking time to chat with us.

Julia Senecal (13:32):

Yeah, thanks Matt. Appreciate it.

Matt Meyer (13:33):

So far, we've covered a lot of what's being done to help people cope with ecological distress and climate issues that feel too large to wrestle with alone, but for the action-oriented individual, there are even more outlets. Recent UNICEF roundtable broke down the key components of climate justice. It's a movement made up mostly, but not entirely, of young people who link human rights with development and climate action. Centered around people in what they can do, both individually and in larger groups to impact ecological issues and policy of all sizes. Also incorporates the fight against social injustice, gender injustice, economic injustice, and intergenerational injustice into the umbrella of climate justice.


It's important to recognize that not everybody's contribution to this movement is the same, and that the climate crisis requires systemic change to move the proverbial needle. Kristen Greenwald is a therapist and researcher at DU's Graduate School of Social Work who specializes in the treatment of children, teens, and young adults experiencing trauma, depression, stress, anxiety, and a number of issues brought on by changing family dynamics. She's seen the climate justice component up close, and it plays into her research, teaching and treatment.


Part of the answer to helping alleviate eco-distress is climate justice. How do things like capitalism, white supremacy, and other power structures play into eco-distress?

Kristen Greenwald (14:44):

There are a few pieces to all of that. One piece I would just name is that research indicates that action-based coping is often more effective than emotions-based coping. So for someone who might be experiencing eco-distress, feeling like they're part of working on the solution can be really effective to decreasing mental health symptoms. And so even if you might not be part of a community that's more disadvantaged or is up against more structural oppression barriers, you could be somebody who benefits from feeling like you're working on the problem. That's not to say that emotions-based coping is not also very important. That is working with our emotions, exploring and expressing grief, learning strategies to manage anxiety, et cetera. Those are all very important, but that is often necessary in conjunction with action. So that's one piece.


Another piece is some communities, whether it's here in the United States or whole other countries, are experiencing greater disadvantages than others. So issues like structural racism or folks who experience micro or macroaggressions daily or maybe have a larger exposure to environmental justice issues like those who have exposure to what we call the bad stuff like factories in your backyard or living right next to a highway with lots of pollutants coming off of it, or maybe less well-funded school systems or less access to mental healthcare due to issues related to racism and how that's baked into our society, or even sexism. Some of our most vulnerable populations are also women and children, communities of color and LGBTQ+ populations as well as women and children often have structural barriers that make them less resilient in the first place, whether it's due to some of that lack of the good stuff or an increased exposure to what we call the bad stuff, which is usually happening in conjunction together.


And so that can wear somebody down to be less resilient in the face, let's say there's a extreme weather event like a larger number of hurricanes coming or more extreme hurricanes or Vermont just experienced an incredible flood this summer. And we're seeing more of these a hundred-year floods but happening all the time. And so if you have been worn down by these structural systems of oppression, you are less likely to be able to respond to them after they happen or bounce back time and time again, let alone bounce back in the first place.


Or maybe the choice would've been, it would've been great to move and not put myself in that situation anyway if I know sea level rise is happening or this area is prone to floods or set up for the perfect mega wildfire. Some folks with more resources due to ways they've experienced privileges over time could make the choice to move or get a second home so they could flee in the face of danger, and others do not have that ability. Maybe their largest asset is their home and cannot flee even in the face of an extreme danger. Maybe even the gas cost or access to transportation to leave is not there.

Matt Meyer (17:58):

You brought up the floods in Vermont, and we've touched on the floods in Libya. There's been fires all over that have affected people globally. How do these eco-disasters and this eco-distress particularly affect children, teens and young adults, something that you specialize in? Is it more of a problem for them than maybe it is for adults?

Kristen Greenwald (18:21):

First of all, children and teens are more vulnerable. They depend on caretakers to support them, but also resilience is built early in childhood and experiencing extreme weather events or disasters or chronic stress starting at a young age can really set someone up to have more chronic mental health issues that are more pervasive, they've existed for longer and it can be harder to treat them or bounce back from them when they've started that early and been going on for so long and perhaps, say, in the face of, "This is something we always deal with," or "I have PTSD leftover from that hurricane" or something like that. There's also just simply not enough mental health resources in our traditional setting to support. Let's say, a huge extreme weather event did come through an area, it's unlikely that all the teens or children there would have access to mental health care, even just a crisis of our mental health system to then treat it, catch it early, and help manage it. And so that's a piece of it.


Children and women are often the recipients of violence as well as stressors increase, can happen to men as well. But as stressors increase, whether it's political stress, financial stress, lack of access to resources, which we will see more and more of and already are seeing as water resources become less available or heat waves. Heat is associated with an increase in aggression and all of these factors. And so they can often be, unfortunately, the recipients of abuse or neglect or other things. So that is one way they are more vulnerable.


And then additionally, many young people are looking around saying, "This is the world that I'm inheriting. Oh my God. And that is terrifying. And many of these people who are making decisions about my future will be dead by the time they predict the worst of these impacts will come around and that will be the world I'm inheriting. And it doesn't feel like people are getting into action fast enough or doing anything about it in a manner that would address it appropriately." And so I am starting to have... When we perceive a challenge, we usually get into fight or flight or freeze, shut down. And so freeze is more like the depression, collapse side of things, and fight and flight is more the anxiety or the increase in aggression or acting out behaviors.


I work with many teens who have said to me as I casually say, "Hey, will you shut off the light as you leave the room?" I will get a response from a kid who's highly suicidal already, say, "What's the point? The world's going to end anyway. What am I doing this all for?" Or another teen who tries to talk to their parents about what's going on in the world and their parents saying, "Why is your mental health so bad?" And these teens are saying, "Do you see all these structural issues? The world is falling apart and climate change and all the environmental issues and add in some racism and police violence and all of that to the mix." Like [inaudible 00:21:26].


And they often receive very invalidating responses back of like, "It's going to be fine. What are you worried about? That doesn't even really exist." Because I think sometimes older generations can be less tuned into this. They're not learning about the science in school the way that some of our kids are now learning about it, whether their children or teens. There's a lot more curriculum on these topics now, which is great, but they're not coupled with, and what do you do with the emotions that come up when you learn that the planet is in the state that it is?


And so a lot of them are just going home with these crisis responses really to a planet that's in crisis and don't know where to turn to talk about it. These teens I'm giving examples of are teens that didn't even know when they started working with me that I specialize in climate change and mental health. And so they really were just... They weren't bringing anything special forward to me. It was just the reality of one of their bigger thoughts on their mind.

Matt Meyer (22:18):

We had an interesting conversation leading into this interview where you had mentioned that while the US is maybe a little bit more economically equipped to handle some of these disasters now than parts of the global south or other countries, that'll build over time and may not always be the case, but looking at it from a global perspective, has the global south been particularly hard hit? And is this something that they might struggle to deal with a little bit more than we would being a little bit more economically insulated in the US?

Kristen Greenwald (22:50):

In the United States, we have had the benefit, while creating challenges simultaneously, of extracting natural resources, which has helped us build stronger structural systems and more wealth so that we can respond to these challenges, whereas other countries that haven't benefited in the same way or experienced the same level of economic growth do not have some of that similar stability or wealth to respond to issues as they occur. And so that's a big part of it.


We're looking at both adaptation, what can we do ahead of time to prevent being exposed to these disasters and having systems in place for when they do happen? And you need the money to be able to adapt and to adapt with an equal... It's not just some areas have these systems put into place, but all countries, all towns are really looking at their situational experience of what are our biggest risks for where we are, what's most likely to occur and what would be the best solutions both environmental and social and town planning wise and communication system wise, et cetera, to mitigate what could happen here? And then also how would we respond?


So that's a big part of it, and we have more ability here in the United States to do that than other countries do. And so there's a lot of talk on a global level of, hey, those who have benefited, and by the way, are the biggest emitters in creating this problem in the first place, really do have a responsibility to help out these countries where they might have less ability to adapt or mitigate the impact ahead of time and then have crisis response when it does happen.

Matt Meyer (24:25):

I know there's no easy answer to this, but in terms of setting somebody up for better dealing with eco-distress, what are some healthy ways to help alleviate it?

Kristen Greenwald (24:34):

There's certain things that research is finding can be supportive, such as nervous system regulation, so mindfulness practices, breathing, finding ways to soothe your nervous system even in the face of danger. So you can get really good at staying grounded, staying well, staying mindful even when hard things are happening around you. That tolerance, that's really developing resilience through building your capacity to manage making... Essentially, if we all have a cup of water, it's like when does that cup of water overflow where it's just too much? And the more we practice nervous system regulation skills, the bigger our cup gets, and so the less it's likely to overflow.

Matt Meyer (25:17):

That's it for the season four Premier of RadioEd. Thanks to Julia Senecal and Kristen Greenwald from the Graduate School of Social Work for educating us on ecological distress. More information on their work, including various organizations mentioned in the podcast are available in the show notes. If you're a new listener, welcome. If you're a returning listener, welcome back. I know Emma and I are excited for another season of connecting the University of Denver's experts with newsworthy topics. Joy Hamilton is our managing editor, and James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Matt Meyer, and this is RadioEd.

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