Gradient 2 1play icon
It’s Not Just You: Mental Health and the Climate Crisis

Tori Tsui, S1 Episode 1

Do you feel like your mental health is connected to the environmental health of your community and the planet? As Tori Tsui explains in her new book, It’s Not Just You - Navigating Eco-Anxiety and the Climate Crisis, the two are inseparable. We ARE nature and are impacted by the violence and destruction of colonial extractivism on our lands and communities.

The climate and mental health crises due in part to this separation from the planet and each other. How do we begin to come together again? Tori proposes reframing our perspective to focus on environ(mental) health, a word that embodies a more connected and embedded sense of mental, physical, and planetary health.

Through a variety of interviews with frontline activists and climate campaigners, Tori tackles the nuances of climate anxiety and mental health, with an emphasis on climate justice and indigenous worldviews. Along the way she explores a variety of different words to describe our climate emotions and their causes, including: solastalgia, environ(mental) health, climate grief, climate rage, grammar of animacy, community, and activism.

Tori Tsui is a Bristol-based climate activist, speaker and consultant from Hong Kong. She is the co-founder of the space Bad Activist Collective and a member of the climate coalition Unite For Climate Action. She is an advisory board member of the Earth Percent group , Climate Resilience Project and a strategist with Hero Circle. Tori is also the author of It’s Not Just You, How to Navigate Eco Anxiety and the Climate Crisis.

Full transcript between Tori Tsui and our Authors on Climate Words host and Climate Books coordinator, Rebecca Gerny, recorded on June 16, 2023.

            Rebecca: Hi, Tori! Thank you so much for joining me. If you wouldn't mind introducing yourself in your own words.

            Tori: Thank you so much for having me. I'm a climate justice activist and writer from Hong Kong, but I now live in the UK. A lot of my work focuses on the intersections between climate change and mental health through the lens of climate justice. So in other words, that's my way of trying to unpack — Okay, so we understand that the climate crisis has a disproportionate impact on people who haven't necessarily contributed the most to its manifestation, how does that affect their mental health? And how does that create disparities in the realms of mental health? So, that's culminated in a book that's coming out on July 6, called It's Not Just You, which really tries to focus on intersectional perspectives on mental health, informed by frontline defenders, and people from the climate justice movement from all around the world.

            Rebecca: What draws you specifically to this kind of work? How did you become involved in it to begin with?

            Tori: I think in terms of the climate, more broadly, I always had a real affinity for that which we call the natural world. I grew up in a fishing town in the northeast of Hong Kong, and environmental degradation was very visible on my doorstep. It was something that I was very conscious of from a young age. But the actual realm of climate justice, for me, was really actually something that I tried to commit myself to fully over the last decade or so, through different organising projects, and through understanding how these different intersections also impact me more personally. I think I never really had the scope to think about that before I moved to the UK. It was a bit of a culture shock for me, moving to the UK and experiencing quite intense racism for the first time and realizing how those instances of racism intersect with my identity. You know, being queer and being a woman, how do all of these different things compound to produce marginalization in many different ways? And that's how I really became interested in climate justice. But actually, I think the knock on effects of that were that, okay, this is really impacting my mental health, on top of the urgency of the climate crisis and the reality that we're living through a difficult time at the moment. So my experiences really informed how I chose to navigate this conversation.

            Rebecca: And they brought you all the way to writing this book, which, as you said, is called Its Not Just You: How to Navigate Eco Anxiety and the Climate Crisis. And comes out in just a few weeks on July 6! Here at Climate Words, obviously we're very focused on words. So I'd love to start by talking about your journey with that term eco-anxiety, which you kind of unpack and deconstruct throughout the book. So could you just start by defining that term for our listeners, sharing kind of how you first came across it, and your path of discovery with it?

            Tori: Yeah, I really like the definition that's employed by the Climate Psychology Alliance, because they note the mental and physical or somatic distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system. I think that holistic perspective is really quite inclusive, contrary to other definitions that I've seen floating around, so it's the one that I tried to employ. But the term eco-anxiety itself, I didn't really come across until a few years ago after Extinction Rebellion’s April uprising here in the UK, which was a very momentous climate event that took place at the capitol in London. I remember feeling a really deep sense of camaraderie with some of my peers, but also this very frenetic sense of anxiety that so many people were talking about. I heard and read online about this term eco-anxiety that was being used to describe how young people were fearful of the future and all of these impacts of the climate crisis. So I said, well, yah, that's really interesting — I kind of relate to that, insofar as I've never really come across a term that has humanized this very profound experience before. As someone who has struggled with a lot of mental health things over the years, it was the first time where I was like — hey, this is actually saying that your environment has a very deep impact on your mental health. Whereas before, I'd kind of been pathologized with my autism and my ADHD and my depression and anxiety, which made it always feel like there was something wrong with me, so seeing that was really quite a revelation. But it was my experiences navigating this world as a racialized woman where I was like, okay, but it's not just eco-anxiety. Like, can we also argue that some of these experiences like racism are deeply impacting my mental health? And we know that racism intersects with the climate crisis. So can I still call that eco-anxiety? Essentially the book became an opportunity to deconstruct that word. I really love how Climate Words focuses on language, because I feel like I really spent those 360 odd pages trying to deconstruct that word and go deeper to get to the root, which I often like to say to be radical, which comes from the Latin word meaning radic, which means root. So yeah, I love the work that you guys do and I feel like this is a very good connection.

            Rebecca: Yes, and you've been involved with us since our beginning, so thank you! I wanted to focus a little bit on the weaknesses, which is maybe the wrong word, but the places where climate anxiety or eco-anxiety fails to kind of describe the experience of people experiencing these emotions. In the book you talk about how climate anxiety is very focused on the individual, on the future and the western world. I was wondering if you wanted to expand on any of these ideas.

            Tori: I think it's such a personal thing, right? Because eco-anxiety can mean so many different things to different people. Throughout the interview process for the book, I came to realize that actually, a lot of people don't feel like eco-anxiety is for them, or they don't feel like it's all they experience. That, for me, was a really big revelation — like okay, so people kind of relate to these feelings that I'm sharing. I think that eco anxiety is an imperfect term, but I also think that ascribing emotions and feelings to one particular word will always be a failing. It’simpossible to summarize everything that you feel in one word. So for me, there was this real sense of okay, well, are there other emotions out there? Does the word anxiety actually connote some sort of emotion and predisposition to a particular way of feeling? Or can we talk about other forms of emotions that we as climate campaigners feel? Rage for me is such a huge part of it, right? So the anger that I feel in response to what's happening to the planet is often what catalyzes most of my action, and is actually what I experienced more than connotations of what anxiety represents. Arguably, though, some people say eco-anxiety is an umbrella term for many emotions. I think it's important to be specific, because when we're specific, we can help situate those emotions and then maybe even harness them adaptively to really transform the way that we organize. So there's that part of it.

But also, I think there's something about the word anxiety that connotes this intangible and confusing element of the future that's going to happen. And it's pretty speculative — like there's something in the future that's going to happen. We know that the climate crisis is an urgent thing that has compounding effects over time. For me, I actually think that there's some really, very clear perpetrators and there's some very clear timeframes where people have experienced mental distress, but they're not necessarily spoken about as much, because unfortunately, there's this fear of the future narrative that often does a disservice to people who are on the frontlines who have lived and continue to live the deepest impacts of the climate crisis. Some might even go so far as to say we wouldn't even call it the climate crisis because it's not strictly about the climate and carbon per millions. It's not just about fossil fuels in the way that we understand them in the Western World. This is about systems of extraction and exploitation and violence left from the legacies of colonialism and ongoing by new colonial pursuits. So for a lot of interviewees, and also for myself as well, I found that it would almost be a disservice, or like a way of kind of watering down just how much these violent systems have cause deep, deep harm to people's not only mental, but physical well being in the way that those two intersect.

Throughout the book, with the interviews that I had, one of the things that really stuck with me was something that my friend Laura (Muñoz), from Colombia said, like “Well, I'm not so much afraid of the climate crisis and its physical manifestations.” That's not the first existential threat. The first existential threat for environmental defenders in Colombia is violence from the militia and the police, because it's the most dangerous place to be an environmental defender. And it's one of those things where it's like, well, is that eco anxiety? Or is that part of those violence systems? So it's about I think, for each person being able to navigate that on their own terms and being able to create space where they can say, hey, this term doesn't speak for me and my community. How do we create more inclusive rubrics of language that really take stock of what people are going through and have been through as well?

            Rebecca: Yeah, I love that. And I think that's a great transition to just talking about what some of these other words are. You mentioned climate rage, which you experience. In the book you go through a lot of different words that describe more of these specific emotions that we experience as a result of our lifestyles and worldviews or people experience as a result of colonialism and the destruction of their culture and lands. So are there any of these words that you relate to or that you found are important in helping people tap into that authenticity?

            Tori: We have to be so mindful that these words are kind of coined in English or led by scholars who are from the Global North. But solastalgia from Glenn Albrecht is a really powerful word for me. It's a really beautiful word because it combines this element of nostalgia and solace. It's this loss of solace that you get from a place that once was a place that you remember that you have familiarity with. It's often applied to people on the frontlines of the climate crisis because they have lost cultures, they have lost lands, they have seen the way that the Earth has changed as a result of this extractivist system. For them, it's this sense of grief and the lack of familiarity that they have with a place that once was. For me, I think there's a part of that word that speaks to those very intense feelings. I think we've all experienced nostalgia in our lives, but imagine that coupled with climate grief. It's really a powerful word.

And as I mentioned, rage is a really big part of why I do this work, because these things make me angry. I think that scientific research has shown that rage can actually be one of the most powerful emotions for catalyzing change and getting people to care about certain things. I think that sometimes really, I wouldn't necessarily say depressing emotions, but sometimes emotions affiliated with anxiety and grief can be quite deactivating. They can often make you think, oh, what's the point? There's no hope. You know, all of these kinds of things. But there's something about anger which is quite activating and it makes you want to get up and you know, do stuff, change the world, rally together! All the times that I've really been quite impulsive with climate action it comes from a place of anger and I think there's also a nuance to it — Where is it strictly just anger as we see it? Or is it actually a very deep demonstration of love for people on the planet?

            Rebecca: Yeah, I've heard people speak the same way about grief. Like you can't grieve something that you don't love. There is a deep connection between those sensations. I'm also wondering, you talk a lot about how rage is motivating and I think that really taps into the kind of importance of defining these words. I know like you were speaking to some people on the frontlines who experience these sensations and these feelings, and yet don't have the word solastalgia to attach to it. But what is the power of kind of defining these words or saying like Okay, this is what I feel?

            Tori: It's a really interesting thing for me because I find that my emotions and my ability to define them really inform how I choose to navigate my life. I can safely say that language or the ability to speak and write has saved me from some of my darkest days. Because when you can't name something, you can't address it fully and you can't acknowledge it, to the extent that would be healthy. I'm a very vocal person, I talk very openly about my mental health and the emotions that I feel in relation to this crisis and other traumas. I find that this is the only way for me to actually survive. It's an act of survival. It's not just because I do it, because I enjoy talking about it. It's because I had to — I've been in dark places in my life where I just thought, hey, there's no end in sight. I don't know what I'm doing and I don't know things are gonna get better. But it was through talking about it, where I was like, Okay, this is an outlet. I think writing the book has been an outlet for me. There's some wounds there and writing was very much a place for me to make peace with a lot of things, but also process that pain.

            Rebecca: You talk a lot about even just finding communities that experience similar things, and being able to talk to people in your community that have experienced those same emotions is also really validating. So towards the middle of the book, after kind of unpacking these distinctions in eco and climate anxiety, you share this new term environ(mental) health. For those listening, mental is in parentheses, emphasizing the mental health aspect of environmental health. So where did you first come across this word? Can you explain it and kind of talk about why you prefer it? And kind of what is the potential of environ(mental) health?

            Tori: You know, it's funny, I often say that the parentheses need not be there. But it's a way to illustrate that there is the environmental, and the environment and the mental is kind of one cohesive whole.The reason why I kind of coined the term was because I felt like, again, eco-anxiety for me was just not this term that could really speak to the range of emotions that I was feeling. Not that environ(mental) specifically pinpoints those emotions, but it's kind of innocuous in that it doesn't specify a particular timeframe, or have connotations that suggest a time frame. It also deeply appreciates how environ(mental) is basically a testament to how the environment and our mental health cannot be separated. We are a direct reflection of what time we're living through and our world is reflecting back at us these perceptions of health. So for me, I'm like, well, if Mother Earth is suffering, then we're suffering. It's a no brainer. This doesn't have to come from a term that I've coined, this is traditional indigenous knowledge that people have been talking about for years in my own culture of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The way in which TCM is practiced is through acknowledging that the external has a deep impact on the internal. The perception of health is not strictly just about separating body and mind, it's about understanding things as a cohesive whole. That's why I felt like it was an important term to talk about — as a really shorthand and quick way to illustrate that we can't separate ourselves from the natural world, we are the natural world!

I thought it was helpful in shifting our mindset from focusing on what is perceived as negative emotions to focus instead on what is environmental health? What is the right thing we're searching for? Or the alternative to these sensations? And what does it mean to be healthy?

I think a lot of people are in a point in their lives now where they're like, I don't actually know what it means to live in dignity, to live in a world where everyone has access to basic human rights, to to know that the suffering of the natural world is part of our health and well being. What does it actually mean to live in a world that is healthy and thrives? I think asking these questions are radical imaginative practices that reroute us towards trying to strive for those things. For me, at least, I try to really think about What does the world that I want to live in look like? And what does the health that I have look like? What do I want it to look like?

            Rebecca: So you talk about individualism a lot and how we are not at all on our own here. I think that's actually the title of the book (laughs). And also these themes around perfectionism: how we don't have to be perfect in our environmentalism or the way that we live. You specifically tie this to kind of your journey around activism and what it means to be an activist. You actually defined the term activist for Climate Words. So I'm wondering if we could just get into a little bit about what being an activist means to you and how it plays into this conversation around environmental health?

            Tori: It's really interesting, because when I think a lot about these kinds of questions, it often shifts. I think that with regards to individualism, there's a lot that I've really been trying to reframe, particularly through the book. I think that's really been an evolution for me, over the last few years where I've been like, Okay, so there's this idea of individualism, and it has some pretty negative connotations. I realized that the things that were positively associated with what people considered individualism, to me are actually individuality and what it means to exist as a unique person with unique perspectives. But individualism, for me, is such a huge part of this book — the conventional negative as attributes of it. We've been conditioned in this neoliberal capitalist society to think that we exist as sole entities who have no obligation to one another and do not rely on one another. This individualism also means siloing ourselves away from that which we call the natural world. It's so embedded in our language, in the way that we live, in the way that we work, all of it. It's not good for people's mental health. I think the pandemic was a very clear case study of how being isolated from other humans has a profound impact on people's mental well being. I think that the way that we navigate the climate crisis, we need to take lessons from some of these failings where we haven't been able to be in community. I think that that's going to be one of the biggest solutions to tackling a crisis of this scale, not just the climate, but the mental health crisis as well. We also have to recognize that this individualism has been caused by specific systems that have tried to separate us. It's a crisis of separation, of being individualized and siloed. It's these systems which have given rise to the climate crisis as well. So it's all this one big interconnected loop. I just hope that people who read the book really get a sense of how community is what's going to save us, and how we have to move away from a system that is built on ego. So how do we transition away from that kind community? Being with people in community for me is the biggest thing to strive for.

            Rebecca: And you found some of that community within the climate movement?

            Tori: Yeah, it's one of my communities, I think we have these sort of prescriptive ideas of what a community looks like, but I also consider my friends to be my community. You know, who do you break bread with? Who do you go to for help in times of need? Who do you talk about your feelings with? Who do you live with? That, for me, is a way to deconstruct this kind of terrifying word. Oh, what is community? I don't really know what it means. It sounds really complicated. And it's like, actually, no, it can be very simple. Like, who are your neighbours?

            Rebecca: Well, now I'd like to shift gears a little bit and talk a little bit about your writing and creative process around knowing you were gonna write this book. How did you decide that this was going to be a book? And what is your process for writing or thinking?

            Tori: I always knew that I wanted to write something about mental health, because it's the biggest struggle that I've endured in my life, coupled with the climate crisis, of course. I was very fortunate to actually connect to my book editor Kaiya through an East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) solidarity group. She was actually organising against racism in our community and I was introduced to her by my manager, Viv, who's also ESEA. We shared very similar political views and we got on really well and she said, “I want you to write a book”. I was like, “Wait, what?” I said to her, “Okay, look, I have this idea, and feel free to tell me if you think it's a bunch of crap. But I think it's worth writing about.” And she said, “I love it. Let's do it.” And so we worked as a team together.

The process itself was challenging for a first book, and also as someone who has ADHD, sitting still for long periods of time, that was challenging. It actually got to the point where I had to shut everything off. My phone was in the drawer. I disappeared for a while, and many friends of mine will probably say, “Hey, Tori, you disappeared. That wasn't cool.” And I acknowledge that — I'll hold my hands up wholeheartedly. I felt like it was the only way that I could actually do this, so I literally shut myself off. Which is ironic, because I talk about community so much. But you know, it was a process and I learned from it.

            Rebecca: Yea, though writing is a solitary act. Sometimes you do need to just hone in on yourself. I'm also wondering, are there any places, natural or urban, that you go to in your head, or you go to physically, that kind of inspire you or comfort you? Or that you return to when you need inspiration?

            Tori: Yeah, for sure. It's gonna be a bit of a weird one. I mean, Hong Kong for me, always, but it's hard to travel across the Asian continent and it's not something I get to do very often and haven't done for a very long time. Even though my family's there, it's tricky. But in the UK, there's actually a graveyard or cemetery that I go to, and a lot of people will be like, “that's kind of spooky, girl!” But I'm actually in love with cemeteries, in part, because a lot of people don't want to go there sometimes, and it is peaceful. This one that I'm talking about is particularly overgrown and wilded and full of just plant life and animal life and it's really peaceful. nd I find that there's something almost deeply symbolic about being in a place that symbolizes death. Because I think through death, things come to you. I've definitely had many instances in my life where I've sat in these particular places and felt very revitalized and inspired as well. So I spent a lot of time there. It was the place I went to during the lockdown. I think that grounding ourselves in an understanding that nature has a whole different idea of death than then this human idea that we die so immediately. Death is this thing that really brings so much more life.

            Rebecca: I remember when I was taught that you should always look in a dead log, because it's dead wood, but it's a lot of other living creatures.

            Tori: For real, you know, I had this thought recently. The summer months are a little bit stormy sometimes and here in the UK, we had a bout of thunder and lightning. I was walking through my local park and I saw this gigantic tree that I always see. When I walked through it had lost one of its branches, almost like losing an arm, right? And my first thought was, “Oh, my God, this is awful.” You know, we can't help that lightning strikes a tree, but dead wood is a house for many little critters. So I was like, “well, there you go. Maybe it's somebody else's home now.” It's quite fun to think about.

            Rebecca: So our listeners and readers are climate curious and interested in how they might be precise and more impactful in choosing their words in whatever fields they work in. Since you've spent a lot of time thinking about words in your field, I'm wondering if you have any advice about the power of words, and what capacity they hold in the climate movement, or just in terms of activism in general?

            Tori: It's a nuanced thing. Language is important, but sometimes language may not necessarily be the be all or end all. Many people's first language is not English. In my case, and for a lot of people who think, “Okay, well, I'm learning.” When you learn, you learn new language, tools, and words and things that don't necessarily reflect the values that you hold. I'm very much like a values based person. I think sometimes you can get a sense of someone's values, without necessarily relying on language having to look the same as everybody else's.

That being said, I think there's something really powerful about how language is almost like a historical blueprint, it evolves for sure. But the relics of it are very much still in the present. I think about how so much of what we see in the English language is actually far cry from what you see in languages that are practiced by indigenous people. For instance, I don't know if you've had a chance to read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, but she talks a lot about how a lot of things that we consider inanimate objects in English, our nouns can be turned into verbs in her language, and that connotes this idea that they're alive. I think that's really powerful, because everything is alive, but somehow we've managed to call trees it or we've referred to certain weather events and patterns using homogenous ways of describing them. Whereas for many indigenous cultures, they have multiple words to describe certain things. One thing that I really loved was the way the Sami activist, Sofia Jannok, talks about how many different ways they describe reindeer antlers. They have different ways to describe the shapes that they have. Or how when her and her community collect water, the rivers and the ponds and the lakes, they have names that would be akin to what we have as humans. I just thought that was very powerful. I think that shows this crisis of separation, right? Like, the English language has systematically tried to teach us that we're not part of nature. I think language is important in that regard.

You may have noticed throughout this interview I kept saying “that which we call the natural world”. Because to me, it's like, well, aren't we also part of that animal thing? Right? Like everything is nature. Everything that we are is nature, and we have to find a way to marry that. In the English language, it's not a given for you to say, “Hey, we are part of the natural world.” I often say “that which we call” to connote the true wildness that we see in this language.

            Rebecca: So we've obviously spent a lot of time talking about words. In the spirit of Climate Words, we like to ask everyone, is there one other word that maybe you've been thinking about recently that has been relating to you, maybe not in your climate work? Or just something that we haven't talked about? Is there a particular climate word you've been thinking about? And why?

            Tori: I wouldn't necessarily consider this a climate word, though it can relate to the climate and the work that I do, but I really do love nuance. I think there's so much subtlety in it. I think that we as humans are nuanced, and we're complex. I think that nuance allows us to see each other's humanity, because things aren't necessarily black and white. I think that when we allow space for that we allow ourselves to be fully human. So for me, it's something that I try to keep in my practice, or to think about quite often.