Nov 08, 2022, 5:00 am UTC

3 min

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Need a new coping strategy? Try collective action

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Many of today's global issues, such as systemic discrimination, infectious disease, climate change, and food security, can only be solved through collective rather than individual actions. 

But there is another good reason to embrace collective action — actions taken by an individual or group in pursuit of common interests: It's good for our mental health.

Research shows that collective action can be a powerful way to cope with everyday stressors, from experiencing discrimination to climate anxiety. 

Consider collective action and discrimination. A growing number of studies suggest that collective action makes people less vulnerable to psychological distress caused by discrimination. For example, a 2018 study led by psychologists in the United States showed that political activism helped protect Latinx students from the adverse mental health effects of racial/ethnic discrimination. Another study published last year found that collective action positively impacted the mental health of LGBT individuals who faced prejudice and discrimination based on their gender or sexual orientation. It suggests that the benefits of advocating for LGTB rights extend far beyond driving societal change. They can also be deeply personal.   

At wmnHealth, we have highlighted research showing that activism and mentorship have a positive impact on LGBTQIA2S+ elders. And we have written about how adolescents use activism to cope with racism. Teens in the Chicago area, who had diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, channeled their negative emotions into positive actions to support marginalized people.  Participating in anti-racist activism seemed to help the adolescents process their feelings. 

These studies make a compelling case for adding collective action to our mental wellness toolbox. And now, a 2022 study on climate anxiety, strengthens the case. It drives home the coping power of collection action, even in the face of an existential crisis like climate change.  

That is really good news. After all, racial, social, and environmental justice campaigns like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Climate Strike are making it easier than ever for people to find out outlet for their hopes, fears, and anger — and channel those feelings into collective action.   

Example: How collective action affects climate anxiety   

Climate change anxiety is broadly defined as the negative cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses associated with worries about climate. And it's a real thing. In fact, researchers who track people's beliefs and attitudes about global warming — including their emotional responses — are sounding the alarm about it.

Consider a recent international survey on climate anxiety among children and young adults (aged 16-25 years). Of the 10,000 people surveyed across 15 countries, including the United States, 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change. More than 50% reported experiencing negative emotions, including sadness, anxiety, powerlessness, helplessness, and guilt. And, more than 45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning (though the researchers did not assess mental health outcomes among the participants).  

These survey results suggest that climate change is wearing on our minds. But is there really a connection between climate change anxiety and psychiatric symptoms, specifically depression and general anxiety? And what is the relationship between climate anxiety, mental health, and taking action, collectively or individually?  

Researchers at Yale and Suffolk universities set out to answer those questions. They found an overlap between the symptoms of climate change anxiety and generalized anxiety. They also discovered that climate anxiety was associated with symptoms of depression, but only in participants who were not engaged in collective action. This suggests that collective action had some capacity to protect young adults experiencing climate anxiety against depression. 

The study also showed that taking individual actions like recycling or turning out the lights had no effect on symptoms of anxiety or depression.   

What form did collective action take? Actions included:

  • Joining or leading advocacy groups,
  • Organizing events,
  • Teaching others about climate change, and
  • Working with or sending letters of support to policymakers.

So, how does collective action help our mental well-being?  

The Yale and Suffolk researchers suggest that taking action in the face of climate change helps people develop a sense of agency that positively impacts mental health.

Other research has shown that collective action helps build up feelings of empowerment and hope while also combatting feelings of despair and helplessness.  

Collective action also leads people to forge community connections, which may be another way it helps to improve mental well-being.  

"We're really thinking about the sense of social support and solidarity that students who engage in collective action have," according to Laelia Benoit, one of the study's authors, in an article published by Yale Daily News.

"They're with a group of like-minded people with whom they can discuss and process their feelings of climate change anxiety and not have that sense of sadness, hopelessness or isolation from other people. That can be really powerful." 


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