Essay by Eric Worrall
Reinforcing climate delusions, or being a relatable mental health worker?
Climate Change Is Keeping Therapists Up at Night
How anxiety about the planet’s future is transforming the practice of psychotherapy.
By Brooke Jarvis
Oct. 21, 2023
Andrew Bryant can still remember when he thought of climate change as primarily a problem of the future. When he heard or read about troubling impacts, he found himself setting them in 2080, a year that, not so coincidentally, would be a century after his own birth. The changing climate, and all the challenges it would bring, were “scary and sad,” he said recently, “but so far in the future that I’d be safe.”
The smoke was the first sign that things were starting to change. People who live in the coastal Northwest often joke that the brief, beautiful bluebird summers are the reason everyone puts up with so many months of chilly gloom. But starting in the mid-2010s, those beloved blue skies began to disappear. First, the smoke came in occasional bursts, from wildfires in Canada or California or Siberia, and blew away when the wind changed direction. Within a few summers, though, it was coming in thicker, from more directions at once, and lasting longer. …
… “Paying heed to what is happening in our communities and across the globe is a healthier response than turning away in denial or disavowal.”
Over and over, he read the same story, of potential patients who’d gone looking for someone to talk to about climate change and other environmental crises, only to be told that they were overreacting — that their concern, and not the climate, was what was out of whack and in need of treatment. (This was a story common enough to have become a joke, another therapist told me: “You come in and talk about how anxious you are that fossil-fuel companies continue to pump CO2 into the air, and your therapist says, ‘So, tell me about your mother.’”)
In a field that has long emphasized boundaries, discouraging therapists from bringing their own issues or experiences into the therapy room, climate therapy offers a particular challenge: Separation can be harder when the problems at hand affect therapist and client alike. …
The climate anxiety being felt by patients and their therapists is very real to them, however ridiculous it might seem to us.
The patients suffering climate anxiety obviously have trouble relating to therapists who don’t believe in the climate crisis. But on the other hand, wouldn’t a patient who believed she was being stalked by the tooth fairy have just as much trouble relating to a therapist who didn’t take the tooth fairy seriously?
What if all their immediate peers and friends were also on the lookout for the terrifying tooth fairy? That’s a lot of affirmation for a belief normal people would regard as utterly delusional.
And of course, both patients and therapists look on climate skepticism, or denial as they see it, as a maladjustment to a very real crisis. A conviction your non-believer therapist is mentally ill, along with all the affirmation they receive from other sources, probably makes it very difficult for the climate anxious to accept counselling and help from unbelievers.
What a mess.
Ultimately I guess it doesn’t matter much if some people live in irrational fear of the tooth fairy, or live in irrational terror of an imminent climate apocalypse, so long as they can function well enough in their daily lives to take care of their kids, hold down a job, and obey the law.
If climate anxious therapists are the best people to help their climate anxious patients to live with and manage their fear, in a way which is compatible with an otherwise productive and happy life, perhaps that is better than the alternative.
Of course, there is one inescapable consequence for the rest of us, of allowing such climate delusions to stand unchallenged. The politicians such people vote for usually try to impose their delusions on the rest of us.