Issue #5 of On the Couch: Dr. Karyne Messina’s Newsletter. Eco-Anxiety: Also Rising with Global Temperatures? Our Nerves
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.
First, let’s recognize “Ecological Grief” is real:
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.
Green Briefs: News About the Environment
This is a new section where I’ll be sharing short recaps of environmental news that I hope will be of interest:
A Race to Climate Safety:
After the unprecedented flooding in Germany on July 14, officials there are now accepting that their country is not immune to the climate crisis. An editorial in Der Spiegel this week explores how the “fantasy of security” so many Germans believed is now over.
“There had been warnings, for the short term and the long term, from climatologists and meteorologists, but we chose not to listen. The fact that flood warning sirens are no longer in place is a pretty apt signal for Germany’s current state.”
Infrastructure Bill Would Help Restore Chesapeake Bay
Investing in American jobs can also include tackling the climate crisis by protecting our watersheds and bays. As such, Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay is about to receive some serious funds: The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will allocate $238 million over the next five years to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program. Director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition said in a statement that:
“This investment will not only help provide all the benefits clean water brings, but the many on-the-ground restoration projects this funding supports will also deliver good jobs and stimulate local economies.”
Finally, I am pleased to announce that my third book, to be published by Routledge, is underway. This book examines the psychological underpinnings of global populist leaders.
Whether populists achieve their stated or unstated goals, populism emerges when two psychoanalytic defense mechanisms — splitting and projective identification — are employed by leaders who cannot successfully acknowledge and process the good and bad qualities in their own lives and in the world around them. I argue that leaders like Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, and Daniel Ortega all exhibit similar behavior patterns and employ projective identification to maintain their grip on power. I look forward to sharing more about the book with you in the months ahead.
Also, my two previous books focus various aspects of projective identification: Misogyny, Projective Identification, and Mentalization (Routledge 2019), Aftermath: Healing from the Trump Presidency (Pi Press, 2021).