Sleepwalking into the Anthropocene

Kate Medhurst is in her 3rd and final year at the Psychosynthesis Trust and is due to graduate with a Postgraduate Diploma in February 2020.   She recently attended UKCP’s first ever conference dedicated entirely to the relationship between the climate crisis and mental health and has written a learning summary for Trust’s community.

The emergence of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the last year has brought even greater public awareness of the climate emergency and, whilst understanding of how it affects mental health is still growing, it is a presenting issue.

Professor Sarah Niblock, chief executive of the UKCP, posed several questions: Are people in denial because it’s too painful to think about the dire consequences? How do we challenge climate complacency? How do we as therapists help clients coming to us with this issue? Do we need new skills?

The Challenge

Professor Jem Bendell (author of hundreds of papers, four books and five UN reports on sustainable development) talked about XR who he advises. What is making ordinary people sit in the street and risk arrest? he asked. His answer: ‘the public is grieving’ and ‘sharing their despair’. Bendell’s paper, “Deep Adaptation”, considers “an inevitable near-term social collapse because of climate change” and has been downloaded over 500,000 times. WARNING: it can have a profound effect on readers (including my husband who resigned from his City career!)

Mary-Jayne Rust (psychotherapist and author) wonders if this all started because humans deemed themselves superior to nature. Is this a symptom of the dysfunctional relationship we have with each other? She shared that 10 years ago she started to offer therapy outdoors. As part of her own self-care she also regularly swims in the ladies’ pond in Hampstead Heath. Strengthened communities is one way to adapt to the troubles ahead. Readers can discover how to reimagine and rebuild our world with the Transition Movement.

The Evidence

Tree Staunton and Caroline Hickmann (Climate Psychology Alliance) led a conversation about the current climate and biodiversity crises.

How do we respond to “I can’t have children due to climate change!” How do we support our feelings to enable us to support our clients? Parents don’t know how to talk to their children about their fear and children don’t know how to talk to their parents about their fear either.

The Opportunity

Dr Joeri Rogelj, Dr Neil Jennings and Dr Audrey de Nazelle from Imperial College’s Grantham Institute shared some facts with us. Their website provides a lot of information in support of their vision (‘A sustainable, resilient, zero-carbon society’) and whilst their message is a serious one and they shared how worried they were, they remain hopeful.

Emma Marris (a writer on modern environmentalism) finished the day with 5 practical things to help cope with this anxiety:

  • Reject shame. Don’t blame ourselves for consumption. Rather than fly shame, companies and industries need to make policies to change airline fuel etc…
  • Focus on systems, not us. Individual action alone doesn’t work. Systems need to change.
  • Join a collective. This is effective. You make new friends. Physically interact with people. It is therapeutic.
  • Define your own role. What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? What needs to be done? How much time can you give? Some people it’s writing, others it’s talking but be wary of activism burn out.
  • Know what you’re fighting for. A pretty good future is still available. It will be different from the past. Be prepared for the changes.

In summary

The messages I took away from the conference are:

  • The term Eco anxiety implies something’s wrong but isn’t this a normal and healthy reaction? It’s not a pathology to be cured, it’s a valid despair and can be transformative.
  • Therapy is going to be needed more and more as it’s relational.
  • As therapists we need to go to despair ourselves and to learn from that to help our clients. Despair enables people to transform as it challenges who we are. It leaves people looking at what is really important and may then be freer to love.
  • We’re no longer in control. Life seems more fragile. Does this mean we may be able to live more in the present?
  • Therapy is expensive, not available to lots of people. How can it be more widely offered in communities, schools, universities, work, faith organisations?
  • Ask children to personify what climate change is to them. Draw it. Is it an animal or a tree? If it could speak what would it sound like. What would it say? Children want to be talked to about this, otherwise we’re lying. Our job is to help that dialogue.
  • Issues with neutrality. A therapist typically wouldn’t share their belief, but another might say when their views come up that it’s all grist for the mill.
  • Therapists need to be aware of climate anxiety so that it’s easier to spot. Can appear in dreams, numbness in addictions.
  • Remember to be with our clients and not counter with positive things about the world.

As I researched this topic further, I found a useful blog by a fellow conference attendee, Emma Cameron, who has written her thoughts on How to Manage Climate Anxiety.

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