British psychologist Mary-Jayne Rust couldn't get anywhere with her 30-something client, who spent her leisure time with her partner drinking and taking drugs. This wasn't a problem, her client insisted—all their friends did the same thing. She was in therapy for relationship difficulties. Finally, more out of desperation than strategy, Rust blurted out, "What do you feel about the future?"
"We're completely f'd," her client replied. She began to talk about global warming, spontaneously made the link to her drinking, and concluded, "We may as well all go down having a good time."
This client's feelings aren't unique. "Anyone I talk to—in the street, in shops, on public transport—acknowledges that we're in a serious situation and that it's hard to see how we're going to find a way through," says Rust.
When therapist Thomas Doherty of Portland, Oregon, does presentations on the connection between mental health and the environment, he asks people to raise their hands if they've felt any concerns about the climate or the environment in the last month. Almost everyone's hand goes up. Anxiety and depression about the looming environmental crisis, Doherty insists, are the elephants in the room that therapists are ignoring.
Although no one has established a direct link between global warming and psychological disorders, Rust and Doherty insist that clinicians should openly encourage clients to discuss their fears about the environment. If many clients are secretly worrying that we're doomed, asks Rust, doesn't that undercut their motivation to change? To get at those fears, therapist Sarah Conn of Arlington, Massachusetts, includes questions about what's gotten people's attention in the news and what they think about the state of the world as part of her intake assessment.