Mental health professionals reported a dramatic increase
in negative mental health symptoms like depression, anxiety, and PTSD during the height of the pandemic.
Now, with the regular onslaught of “rain bombs,” “firenadoes” and “1,000-year floods,” people’s nerves are frayed. The climate crisis is testing all of us–including those whose job it is to listen and help others heal.
Some professionals say
they are unequipped to help patients with this new kind of anxiety, finding themselves unable to find the right combination of words that could provide comfort. A 2016 study conducted by researchers at Smith College found that over half of responding therapists felt ill-equipped to deal with patients in mental distress due to the climate crisis:
“The findings suggest that the internal reactions that therapists have to the topic of climate change may impact how they receive and respond to clients who talk about it in therapy, and also indicate that although the majority of therapists believe climate change is relevant to their field, many do not feel that that their training has equipped them to deal with the subject.”
Moreover, the APA anticipates that more people will be seeking mental health counseling as the crisis worsens. Therapists specializing in subspecialties, such as eco-therapy, are few and far-between.
It’s easy to see why so many people feel hopeless. Extreme despair can impair our ability to make any changes, even small ones, so we as mental health professionals must find ways to encourage our patients to look beyond the horrible headlines and, if not overcome feelings of existential dread, then learn to channel those feelings into constructive action.
The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change. (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018)
Grief cannot be turned off or ignored. Remind your patients that if they are grieving for the current state of environmental affairs, that means they love their planet and perhaps they will be able to turn that sadness into strength and action for good.
Encourage patients to cultivate a sense of resilience, which will help them feel a greater sense of agency when facing what appear to be insurmountable problems. Share stories of large-scale initiatives already underway, such as the 15-Minute City project
and the trillion tree movement
. Humans may have created much of this mess, but we also have the ability to fix it, and many people and organizations are working on doing just that.
I feel this topic is of such importance that I helped organize a live conference
taking place via Zoom October 22 and 23 entitled “Awakening to the Existential Threat of Environmental Collapse: A New Imperative for Psychotherapists and Psychoanalysis
.” Co-sponsored by the Contemporary Freudian Society, the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis, and the Washington School of Psychiatry, we will examine how the psychoanalytical community must address the widespread apathy surrounding public understanding of the environmental crisis by focusing on the serious threat to humanity caused by global warming and the unconscious processes that are associated with denialism. More details, including registration information, can find be found here