Stories from the Field

An Interview with Evening Outside Keynote Speaker Dr. Britt Wray

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The minute we found out about the work of Dr. Britt Wray, we knew we wanted to learn more about her. A well-respected author and scientist, Dr. Wray possesses expertise in an area of research we talk about a lot at NatureBridge—specifically how we can be resilient, hopeful, and actionable amid a changing world, including the climate crisis. We’re thrilled that Dr. Wray will be joining us on May 16 for An Evening Outside with NatureBridge as our Featured Speaker. Ahead of the event, we had the chance to ask her a few questions relating to her work and her connection to the mission of NatureBridge.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

NatureBridge works to connect kids to nature and science through immersive experiences in our national parks. Can you share with us a transformative experience you had outside? #

Yes, absolutely. When I was 12 years old, I went on a 10-day trip on horseback through the Rocky Mountains in Alberta with my family and a group of ranchers. The relationship I built with both my horse-friend BG, who blew my mind as he carried me up and over mountain ridges (I had no idea that horses could climb mountains like that), as well as the epic surroundings of the brilliant, enormous, and at times scary Rocky Mountains, was transformational on multiple levels. I learned about how food never tastes better than when you’re camping and it is made over an open fire. I felt healthy and in connection with all the nature around me, which had a restorative effect. And I even faced a life-threatening situation on one of the days when the rider in front of me and his horse lost their footing on loose rocks and fell over the side of the cliff (fortunately they survived and were airlifted out, as they hit a shelf of rock about 60 feet below rather than falling all the way down). My horse lost his footing, too, but he caught himself before we similarly tipped over. It was not traumatizing, and it taught me about how everything can change in an instant, increasing my appreciation for the importance of gratitude and present moment attention. 

Students often leave NatureBridge feeling inspired to be environmental stewards. From your perspective, what would be the most impactful advice you could offer young people who want to make a positive difference for our planet? #

I would say that they should follow what makes them feel most alive when it comes to environmental activity, nature connection, outdoor recreation, climate activism, and so on. The work of protecting our planet is a lifelong journey, and it needs to be fun in order for people to stick with it for the long haul and not give up to focus on other more immediately rewarding temptations… It’s important to pay attention to which activities and practices energize you, inspire you, make you jump out of bed in the morning and fill you with a sense of joy, and then follow the wisdom that comes from that energy. It’s equally important to notice what drains you and sucks oxygen out of the room, and avoid those pathways (even if you feel some expectation to pursue them from external forces). Making environmental stewardship fun and life-affirming should be the goal.

You are a ground-breaking researcher and a best-selling author on the climate crisis. Can you share with us some of the concerning mental health impacts of the climate crisis that you've observed and how your work aims to address these challenges? #

The climate crisis threatens mental health through multiple pathways. First there’s the direct and indirect stressors to mental health. Events like hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts, and the disruptions they cause to necessities like food, work, and shelter, can lead to clinical anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and suicidality, while extreme heat can make people violent and self-harming. The psychological impacts of disasters outnumber the physical impacts 40 to one.

Then there’s physical health. Climate change makes us sick, full stop, impacting nutrition, air pollution, the spread of vector-borne diseases, and more, and as we get physically sicker, our mental health suffers. For example, asthma, which is made worse by the combustion of fossil fuels that pollute the air, is associated with increased risk of anxiety and depression.

Lastly, the constant barrage of bad news about the climate is stoking mental and emotional distress, which is most often referred to as climate anxiety, climate grief, or climate distress. 

My team at CIRCLE in Stanford’s Psychiatry Department is leading a new national movement, researching how to initiate peer-led, community- wide healing interventions that build community resilience and protect mental health and wellbeing. We need to educate and empower clinicians, trainees, and community leaders to carry out their roles within such interventions. We will also be using the power of community organizing to get citizens and funders on board with the body of research that shows just how crucial these community-minded approaches are for protecting wellbeing. To bring about this sea change in education and launching of mental health tools that touch everyone in a community and help them keep their mental health in the climate crisis, we need to build innovative and powerful infrastructure and are seeking partners in this work. Please be in touch if this interests you!


Thank you, Dr. Wray! If you’d like to see her speak in person on May 16, tickets are still available. You can also support her work by purchasing her book, Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Anxiety

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