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Therapists Are Reckoning With Eco-Anxiety

Associated Press file photo
This Associated Press file photo is being used as an illustration. It does not represent anyone profiled in this story.

Andrew Bryant, a therapist based in Tacoma, Washington, felt helpless the first time climate change came up in his office. It was 2016, and a client was agonizing over whether to have a baby. His partner wanted one, but the young man couldn’t stop envisioning this hypothetical child growing up in an apocalyptic, climate-changed world.

This story originally appeared in Gizmodo's Earther and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Bryant was used to guiding people through their relationship conflicts, anxieties about the future, and life-changing decisions. But this felt different—personal. Bryant had long felt concerned about climate change, but in a distant, theoretical way. The patient’s despair faced him with an entirely new reality: that climate change would directly impact his life and the lives of future generations.

“I had never considered the possibility,” Bryant said. In that moment, his fear was a dense fog. All he could think about in response to his client’s anxiety was his own young children: What world would they inherit? Should he feel guilty for bringing them into it?

“I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to say,” Bryant said. He did know that nothing in his years of training and experience had equipped him to deal with climate change. Bryant has since spent years studying the mental health effects of climate change. Today, he is well equipped for these situations. But that first experience marked the beginning of a reckoning —one he sees happening in the field at large.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes climate change as a growing threat to mental health, but many mental health professionals feel unequipped to handle the growing number of people anxious and grieving over the state of the planet.

Therapists in a few subspecialties, such as eco-therapy, train specifically to integrate environmental awareness into their work with clients. But these therapists make up a small percentage of the field, and the vast majority of people don’t have access to climate-informed therapy. A 2016 study found that more than half of therapists interviewed felt that their training had not adequately prepared them to deal with the mental health impacts of the climate crisis. Moreover, the same study found that although most respondents recognized the importance of climate change in the mental health profession at large, nearly half saw climate change as irrelevant to their own work specifically.

The reality is that climate change is impacting everyone in the therapist’s office; it’s the background—and increasingly the foreground—of life on Earth. But for a therapist who is themself barely coming to terms with climate change, offering non-judgmental counsel to a patient can be particularly challenging.

“I think a lot of therapists do recognize that these issues have clinical relevance,” said Susan Clayton, a psychologist at the University of Wooster who researches climate anxiety, “but at this point, hardly anybody has received any training specifically in addressing this.”

With climate-related anxiety, stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder on the rise, a contingent of mental health professionals are developing a new standard of mental healthcare for our climate-changed world. Their profession faces a steep learning curve.

There’s growing recognition in the field of psychology that people are experiencing distress over climate change. More than 40% of Americans felt “disgusted” or “helpless” about climate change, according to a survey published by researchers at Yale University. A 2020 poll from the APA found that more than half of respondents were somewhat or extremely anxious about the effects of climate change on their own mental health. Though not officially classified in the DSM-5, the tome therapists use to classify and treat mental illnesses, there’s a name for this state of despair that has emerged from academic texts and media since as recently as 2007: eco-anxiety.

It’s only natural to feel anxious in the face of a melting planet and the sixth mass extinction, both wrought by human actions. But while humanity may be responsible for the carbon pollution warming our planet, the reality is that just a few large corporations—and complicit politicians—have set us on this path. As individuals, it’s easy to feel helpless to stop the destruction of the biosphere.

That was my experience. I grew up in a region of Oregon heavily impacted by drought and wildfire. Over the past 10 years, my grief has steadily intensified as lack of snow closed the mountain where I learned to ski, as smoke blanketed my hometown each summer. Though I was in therapy for five years, I didn’t speak about my yearly dread of triple-digit temperatures, or my obsession over local snowpack reports. I assumed that therapy couldn’t ease my sadness, because I was there to deal with internal problems. In contrast, climate change seemed like the ultimate external problem. If I had no control over climate change, how could I begin to tackle my own despair?

Climate anxiety is awkward in this way. In some ways, it’s a rational response, said Leslie Davenport, a therapist based in Tacoma, Washington, and the author of the book Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change: A Clinician’s Guide. “Eco-anxiety is a natural response to a threat. And this is a very real threat,” Davenport said. Yet it can also debilitate. In college, I began a campaign to shut down fracking in Los Angeles County. Within months, I burned out. Constantly contemplating the impact of fracking on our atmosphere and communities was making it difficult for me to function at a basic level.

Because of this tension between eco-anxiety’s role as a rational but potentially debilitating response, there’s no clear, standard definition as to when eco-anxiety is unhealthy, if it ever is. “That’s one of the questions we really need to be asking,” Clayton said. “Anxiety is not pleasant to experience, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an emotional signal that we need to be paying attention.”

But a lack of clear guidelines around eco-anxiety and climate change means that many therapists pathologize their clients’ anxiety, or treat it as an unhealthy response. Others simply feel uncertain about how to treat it. In response to a 2016 survey, nearly one in five therapists described their clients’ responses as inappropriate. Several participants said that their clients’ beliefs about climate change were “delusional” or “exaggerated.” Another quarter gave mixed responses.

One mental health professional told me about an experience with her own therapist, when she divulged her anguish over the increasing severity of drought. In response, her therapist asked “OK, but what is this really about?” The otherwise highly competent, trusted therapist couldn’t comprehend that climate change was the sole cause of her distress.

While eco-anxiety is a natural response, it can also become unhealthy when it becomes paralyzing, Clayton said. But that doesn’t make it exaggerated or misplaced. When a therapist dismisses a client’s distress as so, it can be profoundly damaging, Davenport said. “The client becomes the problem and the source of dysfunction,” Davenport said of this scenario. “Anytime a person is wrongfully blamed it can be painful, but coming from a mental health professional, an expert where a power differential is also in play, it can be disorienting for the client, causing them to question their own reality.” This dynamic harms the foundation of trust between client and therapist, and can drive the anxious client into further isolation, Davenport said.

Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist and climate psychologist at the University of Bath, has spent years leading training sessions and presenting lectures on climate change. But lately, the field’s inadequacy in the face of a mounting problem has struck her as particularly stark. Increasingly, people have reached out to her after confusing or disappointing experiences trying to articulate their climate anxiety to trusted therapists. “Suddenly there’s this disconnect. And suddenly you realize you’re living in different worlds,” Hickman said.

When a therapist dismisses a client’s eco-anxiety or grief, the response doesn’t necessarily come from a lack of empathy or concern for the climate crisis, Hickman said. Oftentimes, the reaction occurs because therapists themselves feel unable to cope with their own feelings about environmental destruction—much less those of the client. “Therapists are only human—but have a duty and responsibility, I believe, to face this stuff and reflect on their own vulnerability in order to help their clients,” Hickman added.

For John Burton, a psychoanalyst based in New York City, there’s rarely a day when he doesn’t think about climate change. When a client brings up the topic—even in a passing comment about air travel or Greta Thunberg—he immediately feels a jolt of anxiety.

“It stirs up such feelings of helplessness,” he said. “That’s what comes up for me. It shouldn’t.”

When a therapist hasn’t begun to come to terms with their own emotions around climate change, it can add to the emotional turmoil of clients coping with overwhelming grief and anxiety, said Tree Staunton, a climate psychotherapist in Bath, England. For example, a therapist’s own grief, anxiety or guilt might come off as defensiveness or withdrawal.

“In therapy, we need to stay with that person’s reality and that person’s response. And the worst thing we can do as a therapist is bring in our own defenses,” Staunton said. “We don’t want to really experience the distress or the anxiety, so we can’t hear the other person’s.”

This story originally appeared in Gizmodo’s Earther and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.