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.
Bryant was used to guiding people through their relationship conflicts, anxieties about the future, and life-changing decisions. But this felt different. 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.
“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 2020 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.
In some ways, climate anxiety is 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 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.
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.
Between 2009 and 2020, the proportion of Americans who said they had personally experienced the effects of global warming increased from 32% to 42%, according to the 2020 survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Researchers followed more than 1,700 children who lived through four major hurricanes: Ike, Charley, Katrina and Andrew. Their results, published earlier this year, found that up to half of the children went on to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. For 10% of the children, these symptoms became chronic.
Therapists differ in how they help clients cope. Mindfulness-based approaches can help people cope with the intense emotions associated with climate anxiety and grief. For example, Davenport might walk clients through a guided meditation, in which they imagine themselves in a peaceful setting or have them tune into the specific sensations their body experiences as they think about climate change. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on addressing unhealthy ways of thinking, can help clients paralyzed by distressing thoughts about climate change. Climate-informed therapists also encourage activism and time in nature as a way to cope.
“The reason we’re in this mess with the climate emergency is because we look at it as separate to ourselves,” Hickman said. She helps clients explore anxiety and grief about climate change by exploring their relationship to their local environment.
For Bryant, that first experience working with an eco-anxious client was a reckoning. Since then, Bryant has devoted years to learning about the psychology of climate change. He facilitates study groups on Zoom, posts detailed guidelines for leading a climate-change support group, and gathers articles on climate science and psychology. Today, others consider him a leader in the field of climate-change informed psychotherapy. He’s seen these changes mirrored in the field at large.
“I’ve seen a huge shift in discourse,” Bryant said.
In Bath, England, climate psychotherapist Tree Staunton has been advocating for more systemic changes. Recently, her advocacy led to the addition of new training standards in the UK’s Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy College, one of 10 subsections of the UK Council for Psychotherapy. New therapists will be required to learn about the environmental and climate crises and the unconscious defenses we’re all employing when we think about this crisis. They’ll have to learn when to support those defenses in clients – and how to help clients overcome them.
“Climate change is the context in which we’re doing therapy,” Staunton said. “And it can’t be left out of therapy.”