Can climate cafes help ease anxiety linked to the planetary crisis?

In a small room in Lower Manhattan, a group of eight New Yorkers sat in a circle sharing kombucha and their climate fears against a backdrop of pattering rain and wailing sirens.

In Champaign, Illinois, a psychotherapist leading a meeting for other therapists held up a branch of goldenrod, asking the half-dozen participants in line to think about their connection to nature.

And in Kansas City, Mo., a nonprofit organization that hosts a weekly Zoom discussion began its session with a spiritual reading and guided meditation before breaking into groups to discuss topics such as the ethics of procreation in a context of rapid increase in the world population and the concerns of the world population. scarcity of resources.

All were examples of a new grassroots movement called climate cafes. These in-person and online groups are places where people can discuss their grief, fears, anxiety, and other emotions related to the climate crisis.

They are popping up in cities across the United States, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston, and around the world. It's unclear exactly how many there are, but Rebecca Nestor of the Climate Psychology Alliance, a nonprofit that trains facilitators, said the number of cafes has increased significantly over the past three years. The Climate Psychology Alliance North America has trained about 350 people to run climate cafes in the United States and Canada, and lists 300 clinicians in its directory of climate-aware therapists.

The alliance examines how mental health is affected by ecosystems: extreme weather and disasters; contaminated air and water – and how that intersects with other forces, like racism and income inequality. Psychologists say these groups help people cope with the troubling realities of the climate crisis.

Ms Nestor first organized a climate café in Oxford, Britain, in 2018. She said the idea was inspired by the model coffee of deatha concept created by a Swiss sociologist, through which people come together to talk openly about death in order to better appreciate their lives.

Many climate cafes are free and open to the public, but some have been organized specifically for librarians, therapists and other professionals.

Since June 2023, Olivia Ferraro, 24, who works in finance, has hosted more than 20 intimate climate cafes in New York that have welcomed between five and 20 participants. She has also trained people online across the United States and around the world – Puerto Rico, Vancouver, England and Australia – who want to facilitate such meetings in their own communities.

On a recent rainy and unseasonably warm January evening — the temperature was 51 degrees and the high was 56 degrees — Ms. Ferraro prepared for her meeting. She lit her Fern + Moss candle from Brooklyn Candle Company, which she lit for every gathering, and lit The relaxing melodies of Khruangbin.

She arranged 10 chairs in a circle near a brick wall, arranged grapes, soda water, plantain chips and other snacks on a table, and brought out reusable cups from her mother's wedding in 2016.

Slowly, people from all parts of the city arrived. The crowd was mostly young, with a few older adults in the mix. Everyone was visiting a climatic café for the first time.

After some small talk, Ms. Ferraro shared the rules for the evening. She explained that this was not intended to replace clinical care.

Participants, for an hour, described their concern for their future children and future generations more generally. They described feeling overwhelmed, not only by climate change but also by the political climate. They described oscillating between a feeling of despair and a feeling of responsibility for the future of the planet.

Sometimes long pauses punctuated the comments, while participants took note of what had been said, simply looking at each other or on their knees.

“I can no longer buy into the idea that there is no choice in how this ends and that big corporations have complete control over my future,” said Sheila McMenamin, 32, who lives in Brooklyn.

“They don't have complete control, and I refuse to give it up,” she said, as the other attendees hummed in agreement.

One Black woman cried, saying it was difficult knowing that people of color would be disproportionately affected by climate change, but many didn't have time to participate in groups like these.

“I'm furious that there aren't more black and brown people in these rooms,” said the woman, Syrah Scott, a mother in her 40s who lives in Queens. She said many people of color were focused only on survival. “They don’t have the money to worry about these things,” she said.

The online climate cafe for Illinois therapists began with Kate Maurer rubbing in her hand the dried stalk of goldenrod she had picked from her garden. The item connected her to the climate crisis, she said, because it was one of many native Illinois flowers she planted in an effort to restore the natural environment.

But being in her garden began to trigger complex emotions, she said. If nature had always brought her comfort, it now also made her sad.

“I have a hard time enjoying the outdoors because of the constant reminders” of environmental degradation, she said.

This paradox reminded café attendee Lauren Bondy of that morning's fresh snow and a black rhino. Ms Bondy and her son, then 19, had spotted one of the last critically endangered species on holiday in Tanzania years ago.

“I appreciate the beauty of it, but I also appreciate the scarcity and loss,” said Ms. Bondy, a therapist on Chicago’s North Shore. “We own everything.”

It was not a question of psychotherapy, the hosts of the climatic café had affirmed, but rather of a group catharsis.

Colleen Aziz, a therapist who runs a virtual practice across Illinois, said she feels a responsibility to put her professional training to use, but that few patients bring climate concerns to their sessions.

“It’s really wonderful to meet clients who are stable enough to be willing and able to observe the climate directly,” Ms. Aziz said after coffee, “but that usually amounts to a privilege.”

Other groups focus more on action.

Around the same time that Ms. Ferraro's group emerged, Jonathan Kirsch, 32, who works in law and lives in Brooklyn, co-founded a climate café in November 2022 with Gianna Lum. Their group started as a private, informal meeting in his apartment, but is now open to the public and the group focuses more on translating feelings into action.

On another rainy day in January, more than 30 people crowded into Mr. Kirsch's house. apartment in Brooklyn for a climatic café. The doorbell rang almost continuously as people climbed the stairs to the apartment, took off their wet coats, and stacked their umbrellas.

Many people at the meeting worked in the climate field, including a man who worked with Extinction Rebellion, the group that disrupted both the US Open and the Met Opera to try to shed light on the climate crisis.

The participants divided into small groups. Although they were frustrated with local, state and national policies, they were hopeful. They were full of ideas for how to channel their energy: composting, gardening, propagating, clothing swaps and mending circles, lobbying for certain laws, participating in book clubs and writing groups, and even returning to the arts. school to continue their studies.

“The truth is that it’s such a long fight, it’s an intergenerational fight,” said one participant in the large group after the small focus groups resumed. “We need to adopt a resilient mindset, where we are willing to lose a lot of battles and just know that our presence in the bigger fight will be worth it.”

Coming together to share climate concerns is nothing new. Environmental activists have been holding meetings since the 1970s to discuss how to respond to climate threats. Native American communities have long come together to mourn the loss of their land, according to Sherrie Bedonie, a social worker and co-founder of the association. Native American Counseling and Healing Collective.

Participants said that coming together to talk openly about their fears brought them a kind of lightness.

Sami Aaron, 71, a retired software developer, founded Resilient Activist in Kansas City after his son, a climate activist and graduate student in urban studies at Berkeley, committed suicide, citing feelings of despair over change climatic.

Her group's cafes are trying to restore hope, she says.

“Fear, despair is exiled in each of us, and that’s why we don’t talk about it, because it’s too painful,” Ms. Bondy said. “If we can’t heal what we’re all feeling,” she added, “we can’t heal our planet either.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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