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Earth Day provides opportunity to raise awareness of eco-anxiety


by Eric Gorton

 
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Harrisonburg is well over 2,000 miles from Oregon, but when the Pacific coast state endured its worst wildfire season ever in 2020, Debbie Sturm felt devastated. 

A professor of graduate psychology at James Madison University and a native of Pennsylvania, Sturm has never lived in Oregon, but she has been visiting the state every summer for the past 12 years. In that time, she has developed a deep place attachment. 

“Places mean a lot to me,” said Sturm. “So my personal experience of eco-anxiety tends to be place-based. When I see the fires in Oregon, for example, which is one of my favorite places, and they come back and they come back and they come back, that’s deeply personal and really distressing to me.” 

The key to coping with that anxiety is taking action, said Sturm, who received the “2020 Courtland Lee Social Justice Award” from the Southern Association for Counselor Education and Supervision in the fall and more recently the “Counselors for Climate Justice Award” from Counselors for Social Justice, a part of the American Counseling Association. 

Sturm said she tries to turn that anxiety into some form of action. To combat her level of concern, she contacted former students who live and work in Oregon to offer help and to try and get a better understanding of their experience and discover ways to donate or support that directly helps. Closer to home, she’s conducting climate anxiety groups for a regional company, focusing on changing eco-anxiety into meaningful personal action. Next week, she will be presenting to the Louisiana Counseling Association about climate change and mental health. 

“Eco-anxiety is people’s fear of what’s happening with climate change and how it can paralyze you with enough fear that you just don’t know what to do,” Sturm said. “The whole conversation becomes: How do you move people from being anxious and fearful to doing something really productive and personally meaningful with it?” 

Recognition of eco-anxiety has taken some time for the counseling profession to embrace. 

“I have had a lot of conference proposals and manuscripts declined for many years just because people thought, ‘We’re not sure this is relevant,’” Sturm said. The recent awards she has received are evidence the topic is becoming more accepted, but more work remains. “We still have a way to go in our field, but it’s happening and the conversation about climate change and mental health is growing.” 

Earth Day provides another opportunity to raise awareness about eco-anxiety. “Working in climate and mental health, we’re always waiting for someone to look, to pay attention. I think it’s a hard conversation to get people engaged in – what to do with your concern over climate change - but people may be a little more open to it on Earth Day." 

 

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Media contact: Eric Gorton, gortonej@jmu.edu, 540-908-1760

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Published: Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Last Updated: Wednesday, April 21, 2021

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