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How science communicator Britt Wray is helping people cope with existential dread

In an age of planetary peril, the Concordia alumna has a guide for maintaining your mental health
March 9, 2023
By Maeve Haldane, BFA 91

A woman with long blonde hair wears a black leather jacket in front of foliage

There are many terms for what Britt Wray, GrDip 10, has been immersed in lately: climate anxiety, ecological dread and that sense of helplessness they can sometimes produce — what she coined herself as — “whatsappathy.”

As a science communicator, writer, podcaster and documentary contributor on environmental issues, Wray had spent years listening to the frank despair of front-line climate professionals. She developed “a chronic sense of sorrow about the way humans are despoiling natural environments,” she says, which became even more complicated when she and her husband were thinking of starting a family. Confronted with the facts of ecological degradation, climate change and the lack of action from powerholders and nations, Wray wondered, “How can one bring a child into this desperate world?”

To help manage her overwhelming feelings, Wray researched climate anxiety. She was well equipped with an academic background in science and media — including practical skills-building from the Graduate Diploma in Communications Studies from Concordia — but came up short.

Instead, she says she found “a hunger out there for resources on how to cope and think more constructively about climate and mental health.” Many feel a complex mix of sadness, grief and anger in the face of climate and ecological crises, which mental-health professionals deem completely reasonable, yet are underprepared to address.

As a response, Wray wrote Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis, which was named one of CBC’s best nonfiction books of 2022 and was a finalist for a 2022 Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction.

“The book is about creating a space for the part that usually is shoved under the surface, that people try to avoid, which is the emotional quotient,” she says.

Because she was so personally vulnerable in her book — talking about the choice to have children can be hugely emotional and loaded, particularly in the United States, where she now lives — Wray expected backlash.

To her relief, the book was received as “an emotional balm,” she says. “Readers appreciated that someone was actually voicing what they have inside them but don’t usually get to talk about.

“It is very difficult for people to live with uncertainty and I explain why in the book. There are good evolutionary reasons — because of how our brain and our nervous system work,” Wray says.

Book cover of  Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis by Britt Wray

Finding the ‘winds in our sails’

Flexible thinking and coping with uncertainty are necessary for remaining open to the future. Introspective tools and skills are framed as internal activism. External activism is crucial to affect policy change, but equally important is the “internal work we can do to sit with difficult emotions and difficult truths and not turn away out of self-protection,” she says.

“We can hold hopefulness and hopelessness on this issue at the same time and that’s okay.”

Deciding she wanted to contribute to this emerging field, Wray is now a postdoctoral fellow at both the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, looking at the intersection of mental health and planetary health.

Wray also now has a child, a toddler named Atlas. She that says she and her partner will surround him with strong community, follow his curiosity and “be there every step of the way to hold his pain and accept his anger at us if that’s what happens — to be able to compassionately tolerate that and support him if he has a bunch of challenging feelings,” she says.

Wray has interviewed many young people for her book who feel betrayed, angry and dismissed by older generations. “You can actually tolerate these difficult emotions when they’re given a space to be digested.”

In any case, it will be Atlas’s lead, Wray says. “His generation might have a different perspective and it might be much more radically hopeful.” Wray takes hope from the outcomes of COP15, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference that took place in Montreal in December, which yielded global pledges to boost the planet’s well-being.

“This, alongside the recent news about the repair of the ozone hole, are the kinds of winds in our sails we absolutely require to keep fighting for planetary health.”


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