Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

Out of the Dog’s Mouth & Into the Fire: Mental Health and a Climate Changed


I have lovingly, and with the disbelief that comes with good fortune, referred to this summer as “The Suitcase Summer”. I travelled through New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and 10 U.S. States. I ate potato donuts in Maine and swam in the crisp, clear water at Cape Elizabeth and trudged through the deserts of Wyoming and Utah, shaking piles of dirt out of my socks and boots at the end of each day.


I visited National Parks I have dreamt of seeing for years and fell in love with breathtaking moments on tops of mountains, looking through sandstone arches, and a cool breeze over sparkling bodies of water.


I took hundreds upon hundreds of pictures in an attempt to capture one fleeting fragment of the wild beauty I witnessed.


While travelling, I was extremely fortunate to have great weather. Blue skies, temperatures more moderate than scorching—I couldn’t have gotten luckier if I had planned and timed it out to the very minute of each day.


But then, in between trips, I would find myself back home.

This has been a disgusting summer in Maryland. From the 1st of May to the end of July, we had already received 28 inches of rainfall, roughly 2/3 of what we normally see in an entire year. It seemed like for every week of nice weather, we had 2 of downright misery and flash floods – all before the height of hurricane season. There are sections of state parks that are still closed due to flash flood damage from the beginning of the summer, not to mention the 2nd and 3rd times they were hit. As I write this on Monday, September 17th, we are currently on a flood watch AND a tornado watch. It’s never ending.


It has also been a particularly demoralizing summer for gardening. At the farm where I volunteered, they had to dig up their potatoes, there had been so much rain they rotted beneath the ground. I re-planted my own garden twice after days of heavy rain repeatedly took their toll.


If it isn’t raining, it’s overwhelmingly humid and hot (and many times all three simultaneously)—like putting a warm, damp rag over your face while breathing only through a straw. Like standing in the mouth of a dog– If that dog also had a horde of mosquitoes in its mouth, at the peak of their life-cycle and bloodlust.


During most summers, I can walk outside and hear children playing, families sitting outside and communing with each other and nature as they watch their dinner cook on the grill, splashes from neighboring pools. I usually see young families out for walks, dogs running around their yards, the occasional runner, and a few gardeners out weeding their beds. This year? I would have been seriously tempted to put good money on everyone else in my neighborhood having been abducted by aliens, wiped out from a plague, gathering together in a mass exodus during the few hours I wasn’t at home during the day. There were no sounds of animals being outside, let alone people. It was too hot, too humid, there were too many mosquitos, it was dark and foreboding outside, always on the cusp of dangerous amounts of heavy rain.


It felt so acutely abnormal as to be genuinely concerning to me. This is a water community—outdoor activities are the point of being here. And yet, there was nothing. Parts of the river were so thick with algae and varying layers of scum, you couldn’t get in it without first considering the risk of flesh-eating bacteria and then promptly deciding it wasn’t worth it. There are a few areas of swamp and marsh lands where I live, but within the span of a few short weeks, the entire area felt like a veritable swamp.


And living in this veritable swamp are many people—stuck inside their homes.

There’s something to be said for the occasional rainy day inside, coupled with a good book and no foreseeable plans for the immediate future.


There is something entirely different to be said when this becomes your everyday routine, borne not out of preference, but necessity. People do not thrive when kept entirely indoors. There is a popular meme circulating on the Internet that reminds people to drink water and get outside, because we’re basically just houseplants with more complicated emotions. I feel this to be true on a fundamental level. We need water, we need to get outside in the sun, we need to get our hands in the dirt and our noses in the fragrant abundance of a garden. We can’t be isolated without community for too long.


You know what happens when people get stuck inside? They get mean, depressed, and they lose hope. And they take it out on themselves and each other.


Depression is awful. All mental health illnesses are the soul-sucking worst. I, myself, have a fairly intense anxiety disorder, but I am vulnerable to bouts of disassociation and depression, too. Nothing gets me to depression faster than weather that keeps me rooted indoors. Knowing this about myself, I keep an area of my house stocked with craft and DIY-supplies. I make my own bath and body products, I dabble with embroidery and wood carving, I have like 7 different coloring books I am nowhere near completing. I’m also a voracious reader and a fan of audiobooks and podcasts. I have a yoga mat and exercise DVDs, my own treadmill, and stationary bike. I am someone who knows how to keep themselves engaged and physically active. But none of that matters after several days indoors without seeing the sun.


The boredom, the uncertainty, the disconnectedness gathers in a heavy shroud around us, weighing on our each and every nerve. We become restless and impatient, the uncertainty of when we will feel normal again, when we will see the sun again seems unbearable.


And, yes, storms pass. I know that, in all likelihood, I will outlast the oppressive presence of the clouds. But replace consistent heavy rains and flash flooding with fire season. What then?

While I had incredible weather throughout my Suitcase Summer, I was constantly aware that there were wildfires raging all around us. Not only was I aware, but I felt a gnawing sense of guilt. Sipping burnt complimentary coffee at breakfast, I would watch the news and see neighboring towns working to contain fires past 20%, wildfires blazing through California, and others anxiously readying themselves for a long fire season up ahead. I traveled through forests that still haven’t grown back after suffering from a fire many years previous. I had the ability to bypass the fires, but it felt wrong, like I was cheating. While other families were stuck indoors because of heavy smoke and floating ash, running their air purifiers on a constant loop, I was having an adventure.


Sitting through days of rain is grating, sitting through months of smoke and terror of fire spreading to you and your loved ones is its own kind of hell on Earth, a glimpse into the ashy sky of a post-apocalyptic world. That amount of constant stress coursing through your body for a prolonged amount of time can be damaging, both short-term and long-term. Our bodies can’t handle that amount of constant stress without suffering some side effects. We weren’t designed to be in a constant state of fight or flight.


We know that extreme weather events and their ensuing disasters can cause Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and an increase in intimate partner violence (IPV).


In a constant state of preparation for and recovery from climate change-induced floods, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc., we are caught in a perpetual cycle of psychological distress and cognitive dissonance, thereby wreaking havoc on our mental health and wellbeing. We know that there is a problem, we even know what the problem is, but we, as individuals, are not able to solve the problem and implement changes by ourselves in a vacuum. Knowing the root of a problem and not having any kind of control over solving it is devastating to our mental health, especially when it comes to such a large-scale issue as climate change.


Carolyn Raffensperger writes, “The moral injury stemming from our participation in destruction of the planet has two dimensions: knowledge of our role and an inability to act. Our culture lacks the mechanisms for taking account of collective moral injuries and then finding the vision and creativity to address them. The difference between a soldier’s moral injury and our environmental moral injuries is that environmental wounds aren’t a shattering of moral expectations, but a steady, grinding erosion—a slow-motion relentless sorrow…Essentially, pre-traumatic stress disorder, the environmentalist’s malady, is a result of our inability to prevent harm.”


Sitting isolated in our homes knowing we, as individuals, have no direct control over the future of a climate-changed world, we become restless, hopeless, anxious, and depressed. Our hobbies won’t distract us and comfort us forever and the public health field is nowhere near ready to handle the mass effects of mental health impacts of climate-change.


We are headed directly into uncharted territory and the only thing we will truly have is each other. And my self-acclaimed “Suitcase Summer” might take on a completely different meaning than it had this year. One not of adventure, but survival.