Spotlight: Project Purpose, focusing on the mental health impacts of climate change
As global climate change has made extreme weather events, droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires more frequent and more devastating to humans, many psychiatrists and clinical psychologists have noted the mental health impacts on their patients, their loved ones, and themselves.
In response to this growing issue, Dr. Debra Safer, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Dr. Britt Wray, instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Kyle Lane-McKinley, program manager in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, formed “Project Purpose” in August 2022. They began by participating in the Climate Health Organizing Fellows Program of Cambridge Health Alliance/Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy/Harvard Medical School.
As Climate Health Organizing Fellows, the team is working to plan and launch a new organization focused on the mental health impacts of climate change. The specific aims of Project Purpose are to identify, recruit and empower Stanford clinicians and researchers (and their project partners) who focus on young people’s wellbeing so they can effectively support youth who experience climate distress in ways that co-benefit mental health and climate action. They hope to fulfill these goals by learning from and educating the department about the power of community interventions, organize symposia and events, and foster spaces to co-create with and learn directly from impacted young people.
The mental health impacts of climate change, like most things related to climate change, are unevenly distributed: frontline communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects, as are young people everywhere, who will inherit a planet in a state of crisis.
At the same time, the resilience of directly impacted communities and the capacity of young people to support one-another in their personal and collective struggles provides a path forward: when communities come together to reflect on the mental health impacts of climate chaos, they improve individual psychological resilience and shared ability to navigate the challenges that they face through climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. This sort of “virtuous circle” is at the heart of the work that Project Purpose seeks to understand and amplify.
The climate crisis offers a bold opportunity to work together in new ways that can strengthen community ties and a sense of belonging, center equity, and advance policy solutions that simultaneously protect mental and environmental health.
At present, members of Project Purpose are undertaking one on one interviews with healthcare professionals around Stanford University whose work touches on these themes, and are building a network of scholars, researchers, and clinicians who are passionate about mitigating the mental health impacts of climate change on young people with strategies which put young people themselves at the center of solutions and communities of care. Safer, Wray, and Lane-McKinley have undertaken these efforts as pre-work for a broader Special Initiative of the Chair, which will launch later this year.
Considering the efforts of Project Purpose and the forthcoming launch of a special initiative of the Chair focused on Climate Mental Health, Dr. Wray notes that “the climate crisis offers a bold opportunity to work together in new ways that can strengthen community ties and a sense of belonging, center equity, and advance policy solutions that simultaneously protect mental and environmental health. In recognizing the need for mental health innovation that meets the climate challenge, the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences will pioneer a new era of academic medicine that treats climate trauma with the seriousness it deserves.”
Dr. Wray joined the department as an Instructor this Spring, and brings with her this research, as well as her extensive expertise in science communications, to help to facilitate an interdisciplinary discussion about what is to be done.
If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, please contact Kyle Lane-McKinley at email@example.com.