After her son's death, a Kansas City mother wants to make sure no more activists are lost to climate anxiety
As climate change worsens anxiety and depression among young people, Sami Aaron is teaching local environmentalists how to prioritize their mental health — instead of sacrificing themselves for the cause.
When I was growing up in Johnson County, Kansas, in the ‘90s, I had a friend named Kevin Aaron who was a dedicated environmentalist.
A laid-back vegetarian with a dry sense of humor, Kevin spent free time deep diving into lesser-known recordings by artists like The Clash and Lou Reed, searching for under-appreciated musical gems.
What I loved about Kevin was that he believed in the better angels of our nature. Instead of trying to shout down perceived enemies, he tried to convince everyone to be part of the solution to climate change.
But in the early 2000s, when Kevin was in graduate school at the University of California – Berkeley, he became overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness about the climate. He died by suicide in 2003.
Kevin’s loss remains a shock for me, and the others who cared about him — especially his mother, Sami Aaron.
On a recent evening, Aaron invited me for a walk through Pollinator Prairie in Olathe, Kansas. Pollinator Prairie is a former Superfund site that Aaron and local activists helped convert into a flower-filled sanctuary, a home to bees and butterflies.
Aaron often turns to nature for refuge, and she picked this spot for us to talk about her son. She says that the more deeply Kevin became involved in environmental activism, the more his thinking about the future turned pessimistic — taken over like an invasive species.
“There was one little seed that was planted where he couldn’t then quit thinking about it,” she says. “So that seed sprouted a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more. And at some point, there was this whole forest of eucalyptus trees in his metaphoric mind — that it just wasn’t going to make a difference.”
After Kevin died, Aaron found some solace in yoga and meditation, but a few years ago, she met some environmentalists in the Flint Hills of Kansas who also struggled with mental health issues.
Aaron wanted to teach these advocates the coping strategies she had learned following her son's death, so she created the Kansas City-based nonprofit called The Resilient Activist.
“We need activists who have the resilience to see us through these difficult times,” Aaron says. “That’s what I wanted to give. It’s like, what would have helped him and others like him.”
"The anger multiplies itself"
Today’s climate activists are driven by environmental worries that are increasingly more urgent, and more personal.
Recent polling shows that more than half of adults in the US are anxious about how climate change is affecting their mental health. And nearly 40% of Americans in their teens to mid-twenties say addressing climate change is their highest person concern.
Outside of City Hall in Lawrence, Kansas, dozens of protesters gathered before the start of a recent city meeting, chanting slogans and carrying signs: “Time Is Running Out!”
As the evening rush hour traffic roared past, these activists demanded Lawrence leaders follow through on their sustainability pledges. Many are University of Kansas students who grew up watching climate change affect their hometowns and dedicated their lives to solve it.
Kai Hamilton, who came from the Kansas farming town of Hesston, says that even though her neighbors suffered droughts year after year, the words “climate change” were never said out loud.
“I have vivid memories of being alone in my room in high school and just being so overwhelmed and deeply sad about, like, my lack of control over it and also, like, the lack of action in the world,” Hamilton said.
Another protestor, Agustina Carvallo Vazquez, came to KU from Paraguay, where she witnessed destructive and exploitive agricultural practices. She planned to study economics and music, but switched paths to environmental activism after she became frustrated by the inaction she found in the United States.
“So we come here thinking, 'OK these are the people who are actually doing something,'” she says. “These are the people who are going to make the change. And once I came here, I realized, 'OK, that’s not the reality at all. These people have the power. These people have the resources, and these people have the knowledge, but they are not doing anything about it.' So the anger multiples itself.”
Some amount of anxiety is a natural response to climate change, according to Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster and member-at-large of the American Psychology Association board of directors.
Clayton says that getting involved in activism or environmental groups can relieve feelings of helplessness. But, conversely, advocacy can also expose people to more stress — sometimes to the point of having a clinically-significant impact on their mental health.
Some of the signs of problematic anxiety include trouble sleeping or concentrating, or physical symptoms like tense muscles or rapid breathing.
Clayton says it also shows up in behavior. For many activists, anxiety crosses the line into being maladaptive when it causes them to turn away or give up on fixing the problem.
“We have to find that common ground where we can accept that there are some really serious things going on but it doesn’t lead us to despair,” Clayton says. “For some people, they can just essentially think it’s too late. There’s nothing to be done, so why bother?”
"Giving up your life for the cause"
For decades, though, many environmentalists have resisted prioritizing their own mental health.
In 2018, Greenpeace International began a major study on why so many of their activists were working themselves past their limits. Campaign manager Agus Maggio explains that many local volunteers and leaders had bought into a kind of “martyr culture.”
“Burning yourself out is almost like a badge of honor,” Maggio said. “So really overworking yourself and giving up your life for the cause is considered to be something admirable.”
Greenpeace and other leading environment groups, including the Sierra Club and the Sunrise Movement, have begun urging volunteers and staff to take breaks, unplug or even limit the scope of their activism for the sake of mental health.
It marks a major shift for these organizations, and the movement as a whole. After all, the message for so many years was that people need to be alarmed.
Ward Lyles, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Kansas and an environmental activist since the ‘90s, says he changed the way he talks with students about the climate.
“When I first started, I thought it was my job to scare people into action,” Lyles says.
Lyles says he's recently recognized that students enter his classes already terrified about what’s happening to the planet, and they're desperate to do something about it.
In his class discussions, Lyles now welcomes talk about anxiety and grief, so that budding activists understand that they are not alone.
“In classes where you acknowledge this is hard — this is hard work to do, but we’re here to support each other — then it’s really amazing to watch students come together and talk about finding solutions,” Lyles says.
On a recent Zoom session for The Resilient Activist, Sami Aaron guides advocates through meditation and deep breathing techniques. Over the video call, she's teaching participants to identify and relieve stress, but that’s only part of her goal.
Her work is ultimately about helping activists free themselves from the narrow, negative thinking associated with anxiety and depression.
“That’s why there’s practices that help you stop those thoughts that help you find the way to be more at ease, more pragmatic, more accepting, and to kind-of shift you out of that fight-or-flight mode,” Aaron says. “So that now you’re in a place where you have all different ways of thinking. You have all other options for what can happen and what you can do.”
Reaching a sustainable future, Sami explains, will require people to remain optimistic and open to new possibilities for moving forward.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline any time by calling 1-800-273-8255 or texting “HOME” to 741741.