Can Therapists Help Save the Planet?

Moving from Climate Complicity to Action

Jennifer Freeman

An anthropologist’s daughter, I came of age on Upolu, Samoa, living by a turquoise lagoon in an indigenous village and kinship group that formally adopted my family. Our beloved community thrived on the bounty of seafood from the reefs, and crops like taro and coconuts. We bathed in freshwater springs, our nights lit by oil lamps and moonlight.

I finished high school in Australia, then journeyed in a dugout canoe up the Rejang river, through the pristine jungles of Sarawak. In my early 30’s, I learned to dive among the teeming life of the Great Barrier Reef’s phantasmagorical underwater universe.

My early life was intertwined with exquisite natural beauty, yet I’m of the generation that’s witnessing swaths of jungle turn into logged-out wasteland. The reef paradises are fading out. Facing the ever-growing risk of tsunamis, my Samoan village moved inland along a paved road. With the ocean’s rise, the island beaches I love are beginning to swirl away.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote an email to everyone I knew, saying that based on predictions for climate and environmental degradation, we must drop everything and step up to help the planet. Embarrassed about being overly-dramatic, it remained in my draft box. For years, I’ve cried over news of environmental losses. The trouble is, my brain and yours are designed to respond to more immediate dangers. For many of us, the environmental “slowpocalypse” is unfolding gradually and distantly. This keeps the truth of our impacts at bay.

Even so, I’m hearing alarmed narratives from clients in my practice, especially since the UN released a report giving humans 20 years to radically change the way we live before temperatures rise irrevocably, exacerbating mass extinctions. A client in her 60s said, “My daughters don’t have confidence that our world will last. What do I say to that?”

In Northern California, where I work, the 2018 fires choked us all with toxic smoke. When bickering eight-year-old twins arrived for family therapy wearing protective masks, it so flummoxed me that, despite decades of experience, all we did was joke about the masks. After that, I realized that by shying away from connecting fears of intensified fires with human-caused climate changes, I was complicit with understandable avoidance and inaction.

My middle-class therapist’s lifestyle is tied into an economy of resource extraction that disproportionately impacts others around the planet, compared to the healthy sustainable economy of my Samoan village. At the same time, I belong to a group of professionals who have skills and resources to address this eco-emergency. It seems deeply ethical in such times, that we adapt to these priorities.

But I wonder, will we in the therapy world take action to prevent mental health morasses caused by environmental crises? Or, having fallen prey to the isolating psychology of individualism, will we find ourselves checking diagnostic boxes like Pre-or Post-Traumatic Climate Disaster Disorder and end up being paid to simply assuage eco-anxiety, eco-depression, and eco-trauma?

We have an opportunity right now to find a pathway between denial and catastrophizing; and support everyone to step up and make a difference. Moving forward, I vow to step out of the “business as usual” frame, inquire into my clients’ relationship to climate change, help them face aspects of denial, eco-anxiety and grief, and walk alongside them on pathways of possibility and engagement in this era.

“Not Enough People Care”

My client Lara, 29, is a teacher who saw Al Gore’s climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, when she was eleven.

“My family discussed it, but there was no room for feelings,” she says. “Looking back, my sense of safety shattered. It made other bad things, like when mom got cancer, feel worse. Life felt really uncertain. I got angry and opinionated and tried to convince people to change. I avoided meat and rode my bike everywhere. But underneath, I felt out of control. At 19, I started shooting up drugs. As the climate got less reversible, I got more depressed, even though I managed to get clean in my early 20s. I think I was in crisis about the very idea of recovery, not just my own but the planet’s. I just kept thinking, not enough people care. You know, I’m biking and everyone else is driving to class. Everyone.”

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Thinking about clients like Lara, who was deeply upset by environmental issues, I’ve realized that therapists can collaborate and encourage a proactive relationship with climate change if we face this crisis/opportunity ourselves. I’m inspired by environmental activist Joanna Macy’s project, The Work that Reconnects Network, which helps communities experience their deep emotions about the natural world and respond to its needs. She’s helped me soften instead of avoiding or despairing when encountering dystopian stories. I worked with an indigenous psychosocial response team after the 2009 tsunami in Samoa. As I witnessed from survivors there who were collectively healing and rebuilding, energized engagement is an antidote to overwhelm. For non-dominant populations, such as those dealing with Katrina and Flint, turning to resources like extended kin networks and church communities is essential.

When my clients say they feel helpless to respond, like they’re just a drop in an endless ocean, I pass on what eco-therapist Ariana Candell reminded me of on a walk we took together in nature, that the ocean is made of drops. To navigate “end of days” overwhelm, we can share emergent, liberating stories. I told Lara about environmentalist Paul Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest, which describes those around the world working for environmental and social justice as contributing to the largest movement in human history. It reminded us both that we’re in the company of millions of caring, ingenious people.

As our work progressed, I asked Lara how her relationship to climate change has been evolving. She told me she’s put an end to “Debbie Downer” conversations.

“I’m into having my feelings,” she says, “But I’m also asking, what’s my responsibility as a young white woman? I passionately want to help build community that’s inspired to engage with these issues.”

I like her hit on it. Lara now has what eco-psychologist Thomas Doherty calls a positive “environmental identity.” By orienting toward their innate senses of caring and resourcefulness, we can encourage our clients to be revitalized and empowered through action.

Just imagine what it would mean if even a portion those whose lives we touch developed their eco-identity with a cause—habitats, sustainable food production, reforestation, renewable energy design, the intersection of social justice and environment, or a green economy?

We humans are not separate from nature, we are nature. Leaving behind the sense of grim, pressured responsibility that can accompany our climate crises, how extraordinary if we, with our clients, become part of the collective who are creating a counter-tsunami of responsive love for our exquisitely beautiful earth.

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Jennifer Freeman is a psychotherapist, author, and international presenter, based in Berkeley, California.

Photo © Sarayut Thaneerat/Dreamstime.com

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Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues

Tags: 2019 | activism | Anxiety | anxiety and depression | anxiety treatment | climate change | Cultural values | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | culture | Depression & Grief | earth | Ecology | Ecosystems | environment | environmentalism | environmentally conscious | help for depression | pollution | psychological trauma | Social activism | Social conditions & trends | Trauma | treating anxiety disorders

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20 Comments

Sunday, November 3, 2019 8:40:25 AM | posted by Pat Piper, Ph.D.
You might be interested in Mick Smyer's Graying Green climate cards, which are aimed at moving people from anxiety to action when it comes to climate change. Dr. Smyer has a degree in clinical psychology, and is currently a professor at Bucknell University. His cards have been used by hundreds of people. He can be reached at grayinggreen01@gmail.com; his website is GrayingGreen.org.

Saturday, November 2, 2019 12:31:46 PM | posted by I. Be
Someone thinks rather highly of themselves?? Conflating helping others heal with pushing an agenda seems rather egregious!

Monday, October 28, 2019 11:00:06 AM | posted by Andy Hahn
Thanks Jenny. We will only evolve if we enter into conversation that identifies what the problems are and gives us hope for being able to talk with each other. Obviously as you're saying we have to do this on both local and Global levels and have dialogue. We also have to recognize our own blind spots. I find you to be a beacon of light in a world that is both very dark and very bright. Thanks for your thoughtfulness and your engaged heart. Andy

Sunday, October 20, 2019 3:17:21 PM | posted by Patricia Papernow
Jen Freeman has nailed it, evocatively, beautifully, passionately, and with such practicality. There is a pathway here for me, and for me to help my clients and supervisees, to engage proactively vs. avoid, or despair, or rail helplessly. In a context that is almost mesmerizingly toxic, Jen speaks for vitality and hope and full-on showing up.

Thursday, October 3, 2019 10:18:00 PM | posted by zeena
This is an inspiring and wonderful article for the crisis at hand. It reminds me that articles and topics discussed in this way can work as antidotes to hopelessness and fear. Thank you!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019 10:51:30 PM | posted by Charles Tack
Thank you, Jennifer, for offering ways to help clients meet and engage the climate crisis. Thank you for the encouraging reminder that "energized engagement is an antidote to overwhelm." Each of us doing our small part may be the only thing we can do. It may be a drop in the ocean, but it's still a drop.

Monday, September 23, 2019 11:42:33 PM | posted by Farshid Farrahi
Beautifully written. Thank you so much for following your vow of going beyond "business as usual" and carving a path for us. As an integrative psychiatrist, I believe that tuning into innate capacities is vital. As you wisely have stated, by aligning with and encouraging those with respect to climate ills, a counter-tsunami of healing can arise. May it be so!

Sunday, September 15, 2019 5:21:08 PM | posted by Ajay Dave
Thanks so much for this article. I really liked how you pointed out how a middle-class lifestyle can be complicit in the harms being done globally and also how you pointed toward a path where it does not have to be and we can take action.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019 2:05:59 PM | posted by Jenny
Hi Miriam Broderson, I am glad to hear how much you care and that you are stepping up. You reached out and I do have some resources for you. Send me your email, ok? Jenny Freeman

Thursday, July 25, 2019 10:03:43 PM | posted by Sarah Ross
This is so important. Thank you for writing this.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 10:41:33 PM | posted by David Epston
I know you have been speaking about your concerns for some time now. I am grateful to you that you have put this on the 'agenda' of narrative therapy practice and psychotherapy at large. I agree wholeheartedly with Gene Combs' comments that eco-castrophies can no longer be denied as either far away in either place or time. It is coming closer to all our 'homes' wherever we live on this planet. It might be referred to as the 'dying elephant' in the room of so many of our rooms or offices. Jenny, your example of bringing such matters in to discussion is so important as perhaps others of us just don't know how to 'ask' about it. I really hope you might co-author some 'case stories' to illustrate your practice by implication as much as anything else. Please don't stop here. Fond regards, David.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 12:29:58 AM | posted by Kyle
Thank you so much for sharing your story and this vital message. As a "millennial" -- someone in my early 30s who is facing my own anxieties around considerations of livelihood, family and future in the midst of our current environmental crisis -- I would absolutely want to work with a practitioner who has the context, awareness and care to address the way these complex global issues are impacting our personal lives.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019 3:49:27 PM | posted by Téha (from France:)
Thank you for sharing your work and your experiences! It's really important right now cause we have to innovate and find new ways of dealing with our world and what is coming. We have to rebuild and il love the way you're seeing things. I like the hope you give to people and the way you helped Lara to find her own ressources. Thank you :)

Saturday, June 29, 2019 7:46:05 PM | posted by Susan Brand
This article was very touching and very motivating in terms of what I can do as a psychotherapist. It made me realize the importance of listening in a deeper way, to the impact of climate change and the fears that it evokes in my clients. Perhaps my own fears and hopelessness have gotten in the way. The article provides a more optimistic framework and shows a way that individual therapists can be more forward looking and work together to think about our role. Thank you.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019 6:08:02 PM | posted by Jill Freedman
I think that Jennifer Freeman is on to something extremely important. While all of us have conversations about climate disaster with our friends, it is not so usual to have these conversations in the therapy room. Now Jennifer is challenging us to find ways to create space for speaking with people about how the climate crisis is affecting their lives and how it may be linked with the problems they bring to therapy. I think that this will require new ways of listening for openings and new questions. But as I reflect back on people I have worked with in recent years, I think these conversations will be very meaningful.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019 3:04:49 PM | posted by Gene Combs
My earlier comment left out a couple of things that I think need to be emphasized over and over: resource extraction and individualism. The current crisis has its roots in capitalism's over-focus on private property and the accumulation of personal wealth. A good person in the capitalist sense is a person who extracts as much capital as "he" can from the property he "owns". This system has us treating ourselves and each other as corporations-of-one who are in competition with each and every other corporation-of-one (as in the gig economy). All responsibility for clean up, or for insurance benefits, or for family care, etc., are outsourced, treated as externalities. We are literally dissociated from each other, and our connection to the earth is through treating it as a resource to be mined, with not time or attention to right relationship or long-term maintenance. People often these days show up in therapists' offices with complaints of "anxiety" or "depression" (described and experienced as individual, internal maladies) when it would be more just, and more correct, to view the problem as one of being treated as an expendable resource by their employer, or of being isolated and alone in a world that has forgotten how to nourish a deep sense of community and connection. You point us to the beginnings of a path toward connection and sustenance, of reclaiming space and time and skill to feed each other and spread our roots and shoots into rich connection. Lets all do what we can to continue that.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019 11:31:14 AM | posted by Gene Combs
Thank you for the time, attention, and love you have lavished on this piece. You successfully evoke a sense of what it’s like to really feel our deep connection to Mother Earth, and of the fear, despair, and numbing-out so many of us experience in relation to the catastrophic emergency we face. You have given me a glimpse of how I might work with the people who consult me—and with my friends and neighbors—to face the crisis together with shared grief and hope. To support each other in doing what we can, and to remember that many many others are beginning to do likewise.

Monday, June 24, 2019 8:27:04 AM | posted by Larry
This is a fantastically encouraging blog, which I intend to follow. As a social worker and a narrative therapist, I've long fought against the de-contextualizing and individualizing views of modern psychology, and believe that people's struggles are often best understood as embedded in--if not due to--the effects of larger socio-economic-political forces. But it's increasingly clear that climate change is becoming the biggest force that will effect all of our lives, and Jennifer is right in encouraging us to find ways to render this discussible in therapy.

Monday, June 10, 2019 8:58:30 PM | posted by Barbara
Finding a place and way to ground ourselves in these swirling times requires connection to other people. Who better to partner with than your therapist who can listen and help you find ways to act through suggesting ideas and resources.

Thursday, June 6, 2019 7:23:25 PM | posted by Miriam Brodersen
Thank you so much for this article. I really resonate with what you are saying and am really struggling with how to help clients connect the dots between their individual struggles and what is happening to our planet. I would love to connect with you more about ways to bring an ecological lens to individual therapy as well as to create group spaces for grieving and healing collectively from eco-trauma.