Howard Breen isn’t afraid to die to save the planet. In fact, he may just want to—in order to save himself.
The 68-year-old eco-activist and member of the global group Extinction Rebellion has spent almost his entire life trying to warn people about the climate crisis. He’s been arrested for super-gluing himself to log booms and stopping air traffic on tarmacs. He’s even gone on hunger strikes.
Then in 2017, Breen’s doctor diagnosed him with clinical eco-anxiety and biosphere-related depression. It’s an intense fear of entropy related to the existential threat of climate change, and it’s becoming more common. Breen is so genuinely worried about global climate chaos—which has led to destructive and deadly heat waves, floods, and fires around the world—that he often experiences depression, anxious malaise, and panic attacks.
“It becomes debilitating,” said Breen, who lives in Vancouver Island. “The depression that I'm feeling around the state of things, and my inability to not be apprehensive about the future of my children specifically, is a huge concern for me.”
If the world doesn’t immediately divest from fossil fuels and the climate crisis continues, Breen would rather not see what becomes of it. He wants a contingency plan. That’s why he said he’s applied for Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID)—a program that allows citizens to take their own lives, under the care of a doctor, if they can’t cope anymore. The law was first adopted in 2016 for Canadians afflicted by grievous or incurable medical conditions but was eventually amended to include those determined to have a low enough quality of life. And next March, the program will be expanded even further to include people living with mental illness.
Breen feels he should be eligible. The first time he applied, in February 2021, he was denied. But he hasn’t given up. Later that same year, he started his fight again with the hopes that the Canadian government will recognize both his application and eco-anxiety, in general, as legitimate.
"If you're on the front lines, you may find yourself at the far end of the spectrum and having a lot of suicidal thoughts," Breen said. “For me, I envision just laughing at the Grim Reaper as I stand on my head for the last moment of my life.”
"If you're on the front lines, you may find yourself at the far end of the spectrum and having a lot of suicidal thoughts."
It’s not farfetched to think Breen, as a member of an eco-activist group known for radical acts of protest, might be using his medically assisted suicide application as a soapbox. Extinction Rebellion protesters once sprayed 1,800 liters of fake blood over a Treasury building in London, other have glued their breasts to the streets, and a few have staged “die-ins.”
Breen’s motivations, after all, are to call attention to the climate crisis. But he assured VICE News that having autonomy over his body and a dignified death in the face of impending climate catastrophe is no stunt. He also has the support of his general practitioner, his wife, two daughters, and son.
“I do feel that if things were to change a great deal, I want that option and, at the moment, I'm being prohibited from having that choice,” he said. “It’s not a stunt. It's a very real reaction.”
So why was he denied the first time?
Breen is no stranger to putting his life on the line for the cause.
Most recently, he stopped eating on April 1 in an attempt to speak to British Columbia’s forest minister about ending all old-growth logging in the province. Breen got one of his wishes: He received a phone call from the minister. But his demands weren’t met. After 31 days, he’d lost nearly 40 pounds and suffered cognitive decline before deciding to start eating again.
“I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of what could happen if we don’t act on climate change,” Breen said. “I don’t think many people love the planet—they’re too caught up living on it. I don’t want to live on a planet where I have to kill to survive.”
When Breen first applied for the Medical Assistance in Dying program in February 2021, he worried that either climate change or COVID-19 would get him. But his application was denied, despite support from his general practitioner and his family. To receive access to the program, two independent practitioners had to assess Breen. And, according to him, his medical assessor didn’t consider eco-anxiety an “acceptable, permissible malady” for the program.
A spokesperson for the Medical Assistance in Dying Program on Vancouver Island told VICE News, “We cannot speculate on a single person becoming eligible for the program in the future, and we cannot comment on cases from the past. If they were denied, it would be because they didn't meet the eligibility guidelines.”
When the program first passed in 2016, it was reserved for the terminally ill. But the law was expanded to allow Canadians “a peaceful death if they determine that their situation is no longer tolerable to them, regardless of proximity to death,” as Justice Minister David Lametti put it. Some Canadians without terminal illnesses have already accessed it.
Currently, if a mental illness is the only medical condition leading someone to consider the program, they’re not eligible. Suicide isn’t most people’s response to hardship, and the vast majority of people who experience suicidal ideations recover with treatment. According to the Canadian government, however, the exclusion of mental illness from the medically assisted death program is temporary, and beginning March 17, 2023, Canadians whose only medical condition is a mental illness, and who otherwise meet all eligibility criteria, will be eligible. They also must be fit to give informed consent without outside influence and be at least 18 years old.
But Breen said he believes his climate anxiety is enough for him to be accepted now; it’s more than a mental illness. “If you reflect on it, the climate emergency is bigger than anything humanity has faced before,” he said.
He hopes his second application will be accepted, if not now, then next March.
Lately, however, Breen has been at his most eco-anxious. Last year, he came face-to-face with the climate crisis after fleeing from a 60-acre forest fire near his farm on Vancouver Island.
Nobody was injured, and Breen was able to move back onto his property. But the fire provided a stark reminder of the effects of climate change and only intensified the symptoms of his illness.
“The fire brought home what I've been doing for a good number of years: trying to wake people up to the climate emergency,” Breen told VICE News.
And he still worries the Liberal government isn’t taking climate change seriously. He particularly has ire for the climate-change-downplaying Conservative Party—the opposition party against the amendments that eventually passed and expanded the Medical Assistance in Death program.
For him, eco-anxiety is a real response to a real threat. And he believes both his illness, and the planet’s illness, need to be treated as such.
“I don't have an infectious pathogen in my body—I think the planet does,” Breen said.
Should Canada recognize eco-anxiety as a mental illness?
Eco-anxiety is currently not recognized as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, whose diagnostic manual Canada uses. Kiffer Card, an emotional distress researcher at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, has been working to change that.
“It [climate anxiety] doesn't really exist as far as the medical establishment is concerned,” Card told VICE News. “And that makes it difficult to access meaningful healthcare to resolve those anxieties.”
Card said some people consider the climate crisis and eco-anxiety as a political stunt—much like some see Breen’s application. “One of the challenges that we have in this field is that it’s about politics, that people are not legitimately distressed, or that it’s [eco-anxiety] not a legitimate mental health condition—that it’s a political issue,” he said. “So I’d be surprised if his case gets accepted. There’s too much stigma surrounding both suicide and climate anxiety.”
Rebecca Johnson's mother went through the medically assisted death program last June. As a constitutional and criminal law professor at the University of Victoria, Johnson says that even if Breen’s application is a stunt, the conversation around eco-anxiety and death needs to change.
“We're allowed to do cases that are designed as test cases, in order to test the law without having to kind of burn someone's actual body on the pyre,” Johnson told VICE News. “Even if he [Breen] has no exact date to terminate his life, it’s a case worth seeking—others will find themselves in this position in the future.”
While eco-anxiety may not be a legitimate mental illness to some, it is to others. In British Columbia, where Breen lives, a study recently found that extreme weather events have contributed to a 13 percent rise in eco-anxiety—it’s making people question whether they should have kids, have sex, or even live.
In India and Australia, for example, rising temperatures have already contributed to drought, resulting in crop failure. Now, the suicide rate of farmers in both countries is increasing. And a 2019 Stanford study found a link between increased temperatures and suicide rates.
“Whether or not climate change is real, what is real are the fears and anxieties that people have, and the impacts those have on people’s ability to live a life,” Johnson said. “The right to be able to make a difficult choice is not an affirmation of the choice—acknowledging that somebody should have that choice is a lot different than the result.”
“The right to be able to make a difficult choice is not an affirmation of the choice—acknowledging that somebody should have that choice is a lot different than the result.”
Some people have already made that choice, with or without the government’s approval. Wynn Bruce, a Colorado man, set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court last month in an apparent protest against climate change.
“This is a really big social discussion between doctors and patients,” Johnson said. “Whether or not someone’s death is foreseeable, or a serious, incurable disease, or a disability, an advanced state of decline, an intolerable physical or psychological suffering—how do we, as a society, think about what is suffering?”
But it’s hard enough to get politicians to admit climate change is real, let alone eco-anxiety. Breen says the only real treatment for eco-anxiety is either activism or death, and he’s seen friends go down both paths.
“I’ve had friends fight the good fight, and they don’t want to be in a position where they're quite elderly, fearing the state of the environment around them. I didn't want to be in that position either,” he said. “And that’s why I applied.”
Samantha Young, an eco-therapist in Victoria, British Columbia, said her eco-anxious patients struggle with feeling powerless. “Many of my clients feel that even if they’re doing a lot, it’s not enough,” she said. And that powerlessness has serious effects and consequences on people’s lives.
“I’ve had clients who have homes that have [been] flooded or taken from forest fires, and a young client who doesn’t want to bring kids into the world,” she said. “There’s a patient I have in my practice right now who has suicidal ideation. They'd prefer the world to end sooner than deal with their life if it came later.”
In Young’s practice, she recommends acknowledging those feelings and finding active ways to express them without harm. With some clients, she tells them to avoid doom-scrolling; with others, she encourages them to rekindle a relationship with nature that doesn’t involve government policy.
"We can't control the future," Young said. " So, I invite clients to the present, to find creative outlets, like art or journaling, and even activism."
Without a universal adoption of carbon-free burning fuels and approval to die how he wishes, Breen will continue to be an activist. If he’s accepted into the medically assisted death program, Breen said he doesn’t have a specific date. He just wants the option—a request he thinks will be more common.
“It may be my own combination of eco-anxiety and climate militancy that I would look at MAID as an option,” Breen said. “If we're looking at a very dark future where runaway climate change actually takes place, it would certainly be an option that I know a lot of other people would want to seriously look at too.”
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
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