Cork woman helps people to cope with ‘EcoGrief’

People who fear for the future of our planet because of climate change could be suffering ‘EcoGrief’. NICOLA DEPUIS talks to a Cork woman who has come up with a way to tackle the problem head-on.
Cork woman helps people to cope with ‘EcoGrief’
Melanie O'Driscoll, of The Green Step.

THE world is altering at a rapid pace, brought on by climate change. One only needs to look to Australia’s wildfires for the latest evidence of that.

The environmental threats facing the planet could be a blight on all our futures and this has led to a new term — EcoGrief.

Now, a Cork woman has come up with a way to help people work with EcoGrief — the overlap of environmentalism and mental wellbeing.

Melanie O’Driscoll is the founder of The Green Step, a social enterprise whose mission is to empower people and businesses to take enlightened action in the face of the climate and biodiversity emergency.

The Cobh woman is one of several people involved with the group, which also has a website, thegreenstep.ie

Melanie is a workshop facilitator and podcast host who has a BA in Zoology from UCC and a background in environmental education and Buddhism.

She says of her approach to EcoGrief: “I grew up being aware of and anxious of climate change.

“As I grew older and my understanding deepened, my anxiety got progressively worse. So I decided to tackle it head-on, and I made it my personal mission to find ways to transform my suffering.

“I tried out a variety of techniques and when I found what worked best for me, I decided to compile it into a series of workshops to help others.”

These Eco-Grief workshops are part of her creation, The Green Step, which began as a podcast back in 2018.

“The aim of our work is to deepen our understanding of the world around us while building hope, resilience and connection in our transition to a low carbon, circular economy,” explains Melanie.

“We do this through workshops, talks and our social media platforms."

During an EcoGrief workshop, Melanie aims to work with the participants on a list of agreements that are to be respected during the workshop i.e. non-judgemental listening, respect and turning off phones.

“We discuss why meditation is such a helpful tool in allowing us to disengage from our feelings of distress,” says Melanie. 

“It activates the parasympathetic nervous system which lowers the heart rate, reduces blood pressure and relaxes the body.

“We then begin with a meditation to ground us into the space and our own experience.”

After this, participants share how they feel when they think of the current state of the world. Colours and paper are provided for those who would prefer this medium to express their emotions.

“This is the part of the process where we honour one another’s pain,” says Melanie. “It is very powerful to listen with empathy to each others’ experiences.

“We then move to another meditation and begin to imagine our ideal future.

“Together, we share our visions that we are actively working toward and discuss how we are doing this.

“It is really wonderful to feel how the space evolves during the workshop and people often report feeling better afterwards.”

One of the aspects of environmental breakdown that Melanie grieves for the most is our collective disconnection from nature.

“The linear economy we currently depend on separates us from the natural cycles of the earth,” says Melanie. “There is no space for the natural flow of life or biodiversity amidst the hustle and bustle of modern life.

“Pockets of connection can be found among the madness, but people can so easily get lost and feel lonely, depressed and suicidal.”

Melanie finds that facilitating these workshops helps her heal her own eco-grief, as does taking action with other people.

“It is so inspirational when a group of motivated people can come together to create a vision of a sustainable future and actively work towards it. So working with people on different projects helps a lot because we are actually doing something.

“Doing is key, but I am careful to also mind myself in that process. Self-care is essential and for that I use a combination of meditation practices, colour and sound healing.

“I also get out into nature regularly. I need space and time to acknowledge the grief I feel to be able to take inspired action toward a better future.”

Melaine says that, despite her grief, she has a lot of hope for our future.

“The Sustainable Development Goals have provided a framework for our future vision, and groups of inspired humans all around the world are actively working toward achieving them.

“I think it is everyone’s personal responsibility to foster hope and resilience in the face of the changes that are happening.

“The world is shifting and this presents us with a wonderful opportunity to create a world that works in harmony with one another and the earth. We need to ask ourselves ‘What can I do?’ to facilitate this change.”

EcoGrief is a recognised symptom of climate change.

In their paper, Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change related loss (2018), social scientists Ellis Neville and Ashlee Cunsolo argue that “grief is a natural and legitimate response to ecological loss, and one that may become more common as climate impacts worsen”.

Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish climate activist, said in an 2018 TED talk that knowing about climate change affected her mental health deeply.

A group of Swedish psychologists wrote an open letter to the Swedish government last May, declaring: “A continued ecological crisis without an active solution focus from the adult world and decision-makers poses a great risk that an increasing number of young people are affected by anxiety and depression.”

For more information on Melanie’s workshops and The Green Step, visit: www.thegreenstep.ie

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