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Therapists and Climate Change

By Garry Cooper

Since the early 1990s, ecopsychologists have been a marginal but persistent voice in the field, warning that separating ourselves from the natural environment creates a wide range of mental disorders, including anxiety, depression, and addiction. Now as evidence mounts about the growing impact of climate change, recognition of the link between the environment and mental health issues is increasing within the field.

As evidence of this trend, the May/June 2011 issue of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) flagship journal, American Psychologist, includes recommendations from the APA’s Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change. Psychologists, says the Task Force, have a responsibility to motivate individuals, communities, organizations, corporations, and governments to address climate change and “help humanity effectively mitigate and adapt to it.”

The Task Force’s call is a sobering acknowledgment that the question has shifted from whether we can stop climate change to whether we can eventually slow it down and learn to live with its serious consequences. A stark statement of that later position was Bill McKibben’s much-discussed recent book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, a look at what our lives will be like in the next half-century. He purposely changed the spelling of Earth to emphasize that, in the future, we’ll be living on a different planet. According to McKibben and many other environmentalists, the dire effects of climate change—species extinction, ocean acidification, droughts, severe storms, rising temperatures, and dwindling water supplies and arable land—are already evident. Even if the major countries took unprecedented steps tomorrow to reduce greenhouse gases, those already released would likely continue to cause a rise in the world’s average temperature for several decades—well above the 2-degree centigrade increase that marks the tipping point of runaway environmental change.

Climate change triggers and is partly fueled by psychological processes that therapists are presumably experts at addressing—denial, dissociation, apathy, and despair. In her article, “The Myth of Apathy,” on Sustainable Life Media, psychosocial researcher Renee Lertzman, who consults with organizations and individuals about taking action on environmental issues and teaches courses on psychology and sustainability, says that what appears to be apathy is really a “‘tangle’ of confusion, emotions and desires.” This results in a gap between our values and behaviors.

While the overwhelming majority of people are in favor of saving the environment, she says, many of the habits of consumption they consider integral to their well-being and comfort contribute daily to climate change. A common technique that people use to solve dilemmas like this is to dissociate from them. Furthermore, she says, some people have a difficult time even contemplating the long-term consequences of a problem so vast and of such catastrophic consequence.

What, if anything, should psychotherapists do to deal with climate change? Justifiably, therapists are wary of injecting their own social agenda into therapy. A therapist whose depressed client says she feels so hopeless about climate change that she’s no longer doing well at work is likely to turn the focus toward the client’s cognitive processes and personal history, rather than focusing on the issue of climate change. But while that may be standard clinical procedure, has the time come to question whether the broader issue also needs consideration?

Only when we get in touch with our own fears, ecotherapists say, will we be able to help our clients explore what climate change means to them. But therapists first need to do their own work and make sure that their apathy, fear, confusion, and denial don’t deafen them, however subtly, to what their clients tell them. Discussing climate change, says British therapist Ro Randall, can open up exploration of “existential questions about the purpose of life, re-evaluations of basic beliefs about human nature . . . and assumptions about solutions.”

Psychologist Mary Pipher’s upcoming book, The Green Boat, calls upon therapists to acknowledge the new reality and take action. “Therapists are experts at navigating complex changes, problem solving, listening deeply, and purveying hope,” she says. Allowing—not forcing—discussion of climate change names the elephant in the living room, Pipher notes, and turning toward things we’re reluctant to face is a bedrock principle of therapy. Openly discussing fears won’t stop climate change, but it may allow for that human connection that opens the door to hope and action, which, Pipher says, is “often the antidote to despair.” Just as therapists know about making referrals to support groups and social services, in these days of climate change, she says, therapists ought to make themselves aware of, and explore with clients, opportunities for doing something to address the problem.

Pipher, who grew up in a rural county immersed in nature, has dealt with her own despair and grief about the environment by founding a local chapter of 350.org, a grassroots organization that mobilizes people around local environmental actions. Now she’s vowed to speak about climate change at every public opportunity. “I once had a gay client in a homophobic community,” she says, “who ended up killing himself,” and as a result, she vowed to talk about and try to normalize homosexuality whenever she could in her public and personal life. “We shouldn’t be running from our despair and anxiety about global climate change,” she says. “We should be exploring and processing it and, ultimately, turning it into something useful for us and the planet.”

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