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To the Editor:

CW: suicide

Two recent Inside Higher Ed blog posts speak to two concerns I have with the discourse on climate action and mental health in higher education. 

The first, How Best to Support the Whole Student, bemoans the rise in disability accommodations, particularly those due to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. 

The second, Will ‘The Heat Will Kill You First’ Spur University Leaders Into Climate Action?, wonders if a recent book on climate change will terrify higher education into action. 

The former is concerning on multiple levels. To begin, the idea that we are over-accommodating students is an ableist fever dream. For the book I’m writing on how to best teach and support ADHD students, I recently made a list of the steps that a college student needs to take to access formal accommodations to learn (that’s what accommodations are: the things that our students need in order to learn). The list totals 18 steps. Eighteen. To state that we need to limit accommodations is not only contrary to the teaching and learning mission of higher education, it is blatantly ableist. That this claim would appear in one of our leading trade publications is deeply unacceptable, and points to the casual ableism that our community continues to allow.

The second big issue with the accommodations blog post is that it fails to make any mention of the role of climate change in the rise of mental illness. This is yet another clue that the author was enraptured by his own ableism, that his dream of excluding disabled students from higher education lured him away from reason. That he wrote and published this in the same week that the CDC announced that death by suicide hit an all-time high in 2022 further illustrates the the author’s lack of expertise and awareness. As our world burns around us and the survival of our species is threatened, anxiety, depression, and suicide will continue to rise if we fail to act. It is imperative that we make the connection between climate change and mental illness so that we can take well-reasoned actions toward addressing both. This is heavy and scary, but the good news is that there’s a great deal that we can do to discover the next, best action in our lives and work on behalf of a better world.

Speaking of taking action, the latter blog post misses the mark in centering terror as a teaching and learning tool for higher education to wield against climate change. In all realms, including climate action, we know that terror is an excellent short-term motivation to sprint away from a serious threat. But terror is a terrible pedagogy. Our brains and bodies can’t maintain a sprint, and climate action is a marathon.

Over the past year, I’ve been working with faculty on what I call climate action pedagogy, to help them weave climate action into their existing courses across all disciplines. We rely heavily upon adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism. First, we focus on small actions. Thinking we have to immediately save the entire planet from the heat bearing down on us is far too big for any human to handle. Instead, we zone in on where we already hold power in our lives, and focus on the smallest, next, best action we can take to get in right relationship with life on this planet. Next, we heed brown’s advice that to get people to do good, consistently, we have to make doing good feel good.

By doing climate action pedagogy in community, by showing up as our whole selves, both terrified and joyful, and everything in between, I’ve watched as faculty leave our sessions telling me they feel excited and inspired to take climate action with their students. No one can accuse me of denying the severity of the climate crisis, however, the path forward is to focus on what higher education is supposed to do best, teaching and learning, not on terrifying each other into inaction. We must teach and learn how to help the human species to honor the natural limitations of our Earth-bound existence, to become, like every other species on this planet, beings of moderation, humility, and balance. 

We will not leave anyone behind in this urgent work. We will accommodate all of our learners to engage in climate action, because it’s the right thing to do, and because we disabled teachers and learners are experts in creatively adapting to difficult and fluctuating conditions. We will recognize the connections between mental illness and climate change. While we advocate for correct care for mental illness, we will simultaneously dig at its roots to imagine and create a better world. We will feel our shared terror, but we will not succumb to it. We will take the smallest action we can, remembering that we don’t have to save the world, we only have to do our part. We will do our part in community, with others doing their part. We will never deny ourselves joy as we continue to face the future, together.

Ignorance, ableism, and terror teaching have no place in this movement, and no place in the work that calls itself higher education.

--Karen Costa
Adjunct faculty, author, and faculty development facilitator

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