PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — With the Portland area seeing continued impacts of climate change like last year’s heat dome, mental health professionals are now focusing on the toll it can take on well-being in something they’re calling “climate grief.”
Psychologists and therapists say they’ve seen an uptick in people experiencing anxiety and other health issues in the area related to climate change impacts, like wildfire smoke and extreme temps.
As Portland’s first heat wave of the season comes to an end, some are taking this week to recognize the vast difference we saw this same time last year when the heat dome killed nearly 100 Oregonians. ‘Heat week’ as organizers call it, not only looks back at last year’s devastation but also looks to how people can move forward, including when it comes to their mental health.
“This uncertainty can put us in literal, visceral, embodied tension, stress, panic, feelings of deep doom,” said Barbara Ford, an activist and therapist.
A climate and health panel made up of area mental health professionals looked at how the two intersect. One therapist says after years of relatively normal experiences in Portland compared to the rest of America, the metro is feeling the impacts of change like recent wildfires and smoke, triggering feelings of anxiety and other health issues.
“I thought, ‘I’m in Portland, it’s a relatively safe place compared to all the other places where there are storms and floods and things like that,'” said Ford. “And then all of a sudden, almost two years ago there were the fires.”
Professionals are also looking at the mental impact of the 2021 heat dome, which saw at least 96 deaths in Oregon, including 69 in Multnomah County, impacting families across the state and heightening personal struggles in others.
“Climate was a problem for another place and another time but what has happened is these boxes have gotten closer together and sometimes they overlap so the disaster comes to our home and that’s what happened in Portland and the heat dome,” said psychologist Dr. Thomas Doherty.
With the impacts of climate change likely to continue, even with conservation efforts, mental health professionals suggest not letting those cause feelings of despair, but instead, finding other ways through it.
“Successful coping with issues like heat and climate is separate from solving climate change,” said Doherty. “Some people feel like we have to solve everything to cope but that’s not the case.”
Organizers of “Heat Week” have more events planned for this week. On Wednesday, there is a heat first aid training with the signs to look out for in heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and how to help people in distress. The event is free and will be held virtually.