Three months after Gretchen bought a house in Grass Valley, California, the most destructive and fatal wildfire in the state's history ravaged the towns about 40 miles northwest of her.
"For a long time, I kept on having this vision of what my town will look like if one of those firestorms happens, and I felt like I needed to work on that."
The Camp Fire of November 2018 was noteworthy not just because of its damaging scale but because of what started it all: a spark from a faulty transmission line owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which services nearly two-thirds of California.
PG&E reacted by announcing almost a year later that in advance of days with a high fire risk, it would proactively institute power outages in 17 counties throughout the northern part of the state, including the one where Gretchen lives. The binary options seemed to be: cause another fire or intermittently plunge tens of thousands of people into literal and figurative darkness, impacting emergency services, health, food, internet, gas, and any other electrified necessity or convenience of modern life.
This summer, in between the end of the Camp Fire and the beginning of the blackouts, Gretchen, who asked to keep her last name private, decided it was time to seek counseling for climate-related anxiety.
"That was a very traumatic experience to go through," Gretchen, 39, says, describing what it was like to have recently settled in this increasingly fire-prone part of her home state, and later witnessing a colleague flee California altogether after his own home burned down and he couldn't afford to stay. "For a long time, I kept on having this vision of what my town will look like if one of those firestorms happens, and I felt like I needed to work on that."
While research on climate anxiety—or, more broadly, the effects of climate change on mental health—has been slowly but surely piling up, the actual experience of diagnosing and treating it is less well-documented in both media and academia. An ongoing Yale University study of American perceptions of climate change shows an increasing proportion of concern: In 2018, 29 percent of 1,114 survey respondents said they were "very worried" about climate change, up from 16 percent in 2008. But there are no parallel large-scale studies of whether a similar proportion of people are in therapy for climate change-related mental health issues.
That might be because many would-be clients don't yet realize that this is a valid concern for which to seek out professional support. It could also be because there are no definitive or unifying resources for therapists who are counseling people on the topic. Climate anxiety is notably absent by name from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the psychological gospel for everyone from clinicians to lawmakers. The manual was last updated in 2012 (and published in 2013), just when the first documents of climate anxiety were beginning to crop up.
A small 2013 study surveyed college students in the U.S. and Europe to try and answer the question: Is habitually worrying about the environment a mental health concern if it's a response to a real threat? The study concluded: "...those who habitually worry about the ecology are not only lacking in any psychopathology, but demonstrate a constructive and adaptive response to a serious problem." In other words, worrying about a concrete external concern like the state of the environment is on a different plane than habitually worrying about an internal concern, like feelings of inadequacy. Therapy may still help with the former, but the diagnostic framework could ultimately look different than what is typically used in generalized anxiety.
For now, the best resource for therapists counseling patients battling what is sometimes dubbed "ecoanxiety" is a 70-page booklet called "Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance," whose publication was co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, which publishes the DSM. It's been through two editions already, the first in 2014 and the second in 2017.
"It's not clear to me that [climate anxiety] would merit its own diagnosis, at least at this point," says Susan Clayton, who was the lead author on the 2017 edition and who studies this area at The College of Wooster, but doesn't counsel people directly. However, she says, "I do think that there are some differences [from generalized anxiety], and one of the important differences is, of course, that there's some realism here."
Clayton says that group therapy may be a particularly useful way to affirm for people that they're not the only one experiencing climate anxiety, especially in communities where it might be taboo to not only affirm the existence of climate change but to be openly affected by it.
On drawing therapeutic inspiration from historical examples of other global dangers—such as the widespread fear of nuclear threat during the Cold War—Clayton says: "That was such a different time and they were thinking differently about mental health, but I think in many ways the fear is very similar. It's not like worrying about your finances, it's worrying about the end of the world. So that sort of existential component, and the fact that it's shared, both are very similar here."
There are precedents that therapists can refer to for guidance on helping clients managing climate anxiety, like the approaches used to support people dealing with a terminal illness or battling systemic racism. Such treatments need to stay rooted in the reality of the trigger.
"You don't want to say to them, 'That's not a real thing,'" Clayton explains. "So I think of [climate anxiety] like that. It does mean that the therapeutic focus is not going to be on trying to get people to be reasonable," which is to say that their anxiety is not inherently unreasonable.
"I think it is important to recognize that the anxieties have a legitimate basis," she adds.
"I feel more comfortable now being prepared, being prudent, but not dwelling on it all the time."
Gretchen's reality is now one of adapting to living an off-the-grid lifestyle that she didn't intentionally sign up for. She puts gas in her car in advance of blackouts, and waits to see week-by-week if the school where she teaches second and third grade, in the foothills of Tahoe National Park, will be closed. Her union has yet to figure out how this stop-and-go schedule will affect her salary; she has to keep rescheduling parent-teacher conferences; and she no longer knows when the last day of school will be—existing summer plans for her personal life be damned. Even her interview for this story was affected by this instability.
While trying to schedule a time to talk, she wrote, "Speaking of climate change, I may not have work the rest of the week due to PG&E power outages. If so I will have a very flexible schedule." Later, she suddenly had to decline. "As it turns out, the power's not going out. I will be at work."
In therapy sessions, she works with her counselor to focus on preparedness, where possible, and to specifically frame that preparedness as a source of regaining some of the stability she's lost rather than a sign of imminent trouble. That nuance became necessary after a training at work had the opposite effect.
"We've gone through scenarios [where] if a firestorm happens and we don't have time to evacuate, we have to gather all the children into the cafeteria and fend off the flames ourselves with help from the fire department, and keep them alive if we can't get out in time," she says. "After that day, or that training, that really scared me."
Her therapist uses a type of psychotherapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to help Gretchen move away from traumatizing images, such as picturing her town on fire, while emphasizing what it is that she can control, such as making sure her car has a full tank, in case she needs to evacuate. EMDR has been shown to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the World Health Organization offers practice guidelines around it.
"I feel more comfortable now being prepared, being prudent, but not dwelling on it all the time," she says. "I feel a little less heightened anxiety and have stopped replaying [those images] in my mind."
Overall, the type of support Gretchen receives is based on pre-existing tools for managing other well-established mental health burdens like PTSD and generalized anxiety. Although no definitive, new practices have specifically emerged around climate anxiety on a comprehensive scale yet, Gretchen says she was nonetheless met with compassion when she first approached a therapist about the topical source of her anxiety, and doesn't feel that her care is lacking in any way.
"I don't know enough to know whether or how it should become its own diagnosis, but I feel like it's something that is still evolving. Down the road, as we see more populations having to move, more refugees, more real effects, that might change," she says. "For me, using the old tools in a new way has been effective at this point."
Gretchen hasn't yet explored with her therapist the more existential worries that climate change dredges up for her—worries about whether or not to have children, and if it was a mistake to settle down in Grass Valley. She's only been in therapy for her climate anxiety since the summer (although she has intermittently sought out professional mental health support for other reasons over the last eight years), and it will take time to get to these bigger issues, she says. She's not sure yet whether that part of her counseling will look different than what's she's done so far.
But she does wonder about the overall usefulness of pathologizing what, as Clayton said, are legitimate anxieties. She has the same question when it comes to providing mental health support for her students, many of whom live in poverty.
"Is it just putting a bandaid on something that is unfixable, or is unfair?" she ponders. But de-escalating the psychological toll that climate change can have on people is crucial to giving them back the energy to deal with the problem itself, not just their reaction to the problem. Clayton believes that engaging in climate activism can provide solace for the people who do have that energy.
"This is a social issue, and there's obviously lots and lots of climate activism," she says. "You might not be comfortable being politically active, but I think getting involved in some way, and addressing the issue, would help people feel much more empowered, and would help with the experience of climate anxiety."
"Remember that nature is not just a source of anxiety, it's also a source of replenishment and restoration."
As far as what shape this personal involvement takes, an increasingly vocal movement of people is calling for a refocus. They say the onus of reversing, or at least stymying, the situation should fall on the big businesses and governments that have been too slow to act, not on individual consumer actions, like buying sustainably made clothes, divesting from the meat and dairy industry, or driving an electric car.
But outside of formal therapy and even activism, however that looks, Clayton has another suggestion for combating climate anxiety, and it's one that is surprising in its simplicity: Go outside, and take stock of that which boldly continues to exist.
"People who are anxious about climate change, it's partly about the survival of the species, but it's partly about the sense that, 'Something I care about is being destroyed,'" she says. "Remember that nature is not just a source of anxiety, it's also a source of replenishment and restoration."
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."