Selected Analysis

Is the climate crisis creating a mental health crisis?

By Greta Moran /Al Jazeera/ – Psychiatrist Dr Lise Van Susteren did not expect to be allowed into a public hearing of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency responsible for regulating interstate energy transmission across the United States.

She had interrupted a FERC meeting before, which typically results in being barred from entering again. But to her surprise, she was allowed into the late February hearing, along with activists from Beyond Extreme Energy, a collective fighting fossil fuel extraction and calling for an overhaul of FERC to enable the quick transition to renewable energy sources.

Van Susteren had nothing prepared, but she knew the drill: she found a seat in the middle of a packed row so it would take longer for security to get to her. “Like a crowded aeroplane, the more people that are on either side of you, the more time you have,” she explained.

The commission was in the middle of considering a proposal for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal and 230-mile (370-km) pipeline in southwest Oregon – until it was interrupted. Following six other activists, Van Susteren stood up to speak about climate change’s far-ranging harm to mental health, including the patients who turn up at her office in Washington, DC, struggling to cope with a quickly warming world.

Van Susteren warned the commissioners that by approving the construction of the sprawling pipeline, they were fuelling this mental health crisis.

It is an issue that she has been studying for more than a decade now. In 2012, she co-authored one of the earliest major reports (PDF) on climate change and mental health, published by the National Wildlife Federation.

“We may not currently be thinking about how heavy the toll on our psyche will be, but, before long, we will know only too well,” she wrote in the report.

Yet this evidence-backed warning has gone largely unheeded, especially by those controlling the world’s energy future, which is why Van Susteren is still fighting for it to be heard.

It did not take too long – about a minute, Van Susteren estimated – for the security guards to press through the crowded row and escort her from the room. “Talk about surreal,” Van Susteren said, recalling the experience. “You can hardly believe that you are there, right at the confrontation between good and evil. And I don’t mean ‘good’ in a self-serving sense. I mean, in the sense of life versus our demise.”

The commissioners did not listen to the warnings of Van Susteren and other activists: in March, FERC approved the pipeline and LNG facility, a decision that will allow more greenhouse gases to be emitted into a world overwhelmed by enormous wildfires, prolonged stretches of drought, relentless hurricanes, thinning permafrost and the current global pandemic – a world unprepared for even more unscalable loss of life.

Mobilising psychiatrists

Van Susteren is far from the only psychiatrist warning of the anxiety and suffering resulting from living on an Earth that is being destroyed. She is a founding member of a nonprofit and all-volunteer network of psychiatrists, known as the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA), which share a common goal, Van Susteren explained, of “pointing out the mental health tragedy that awaits as a result of climate disruption and how to build resilience”.

“I came back and was continuing to look for allies here and they started popping up kind of randomly,” she explained.

A web of climate-focused psychiatrists was beginning to come together, many having already met through professional affiliations. So, in early 2017, they decided to have an initial phone call to work out how they could organise for broader change, particularly within their own field.

In just a few years, the handful of psychiatrists ballooned to more than 400 across the US. Every two weeks, they conduct a meeting by phone, which begins with a meditation, prayer, or thought to establish a sense of community and trust.

The network is premised on the idea that psychiatrists can play a unique role in helping people emotionally navigate the climate crisis, while also communicating its health risks, Van Susteren explained. “We’re good at talking people off the ledge who are very anxious. We’re also good at finding a silver lining. Even when things are dark, we understand science and urgency.”

Along with mobilising psychiatrists to address climate change, the CPA has been pushing the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the largest professional body of psychiatrists, to take a stronger stance on the climate crisis.

‘A race against time’

But there is still a long way to go. Many psychiatrists remain untrained in how to talk about climate change, recognise its far-reaching, ongoing devastation, and prepare for a growing surge of people in need of their services.

“It’s really a race against time to get psychiatry where it needs to be,” said Dr Elizabeth Haase, a founding member of the CPA and a Nevada-based psychiatrist. “No one is really prepared for the magnitude that is predicted to occur, and with things going much faster than we thought they were going to go, that impact is coming much sooner than we thought.”

It can be hard to recognise the scope of this tragedy, explained Haase, because the mental health effects of climate change show up in so many different layers of a person’s life. Rising temperatures and heatwaves can be devastating, including being linked to increased rates of suicide and violence. The social and economic upheaval of climate change can also cause a range of psychological harm, from acute stress to more chronic responses to trauma.

“Because we’re having more extreme weather, more people are living in areas with food scarcity, more people are homeless, more people are financially struggling,” said Haase.

Climate disasters, like intensified hurricanes and wildfires, can lead to mental health consequences that linger for years. As parts of the world become nearly uninhabitable, more people will become climate refugees, forced to migrate and experience the pain of leaving one’s home.

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