Prescription for action from the Climate Psychiatry Alliance
Janet Lewis, MD, David Pollack, MD, Lise Van Susteren, MD
As mental health professionals, we promote functioning, thriving, and empowerment within reality. Therefore, when faced with a profound new reality, such as the destabilization of the climate, we have an undeniable professional responsibility to inform the public of its nature, its implications and our recommendations. The urgency of the climate crisis necessitates clear recognition of our current psychological situation and the steps required now and into the future to protect the mental health of individuals and the population. Therefore, we publicly declare and describe, in the terms of our profession, the mental health dangers we face and the measures which must be undertaken.
The dangers we face
Denial of reality is a normal human defense mechanism, as is disavowal, the process whereby one can both know and not know something at the same time. Our population is in the process of emerging from denial and disavowal over climate. These defenses derive from complex psychological, social, cultural and economic factors. Our behavior and that of our leaders makes clear that, while we are in the process of awakening to our climate reality, our emergence from denial and disavowal is far from complete and must be accelerated.
In the wake of our break with climate denial, we face new psychological dangers: paralysis, hopelessness, cynicism and magical thinking. These reactions, while normal, also endanger us if we allow ourselves to linger in them.
To fully appreciate our climate crisis, we ask that you consider the following scenario:
Imagine that you have lost everything, your home, your pets, perhaps even family members. The surrounding landscape is devastated by storm, flood, fire or drought and now appears alien. Imagine you have no neighbors to turn to because everyone you know is in the same boat. How important would it be for you to know that someone somewhere cares and is trying to help? How important would it be that your suffering is not ignored?
While paralysis, especially in the face of threat and complexity, is an understandable reaction, a healthier option is engagement. Once we take action, especially action in concert with others, the brain circuits that support paralysis are overridden and we have the presence of mind needed to sustain us in our difficult work and through challenging times.
We prescribe action in concert with others in multiple realms. Each individual and every organization should actively respond to this crisis in accordance with their talents and spheres of influence. Here is what we need:
· Corporate and government policies that rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reinvest all monies from fossil fuels to sustainable activities.
· Community building that can resiliently withstand the suffering which is to come in the wake of increased disasters. Effective resilience can be instilled by building supportive communities and planning for adaptive responses to increased disasters, increased heat and sea level rise.
· Mental health systems are currently unprepared for what we will face and must be expanded and oriented to addressing the consequences of CC.
· We need to confront denial and disavowal. The use of fossil fuels and animal agriculture are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The denial of our leaders should be confronted and we should each undertake the humbling and eye-opening task of examining our own carbon footprints.
· Everyone must become engaged in climate action. We urge everyone to join a group that is working towards these ends, whether the group be one of environmental advocacy, faith-based or a civic organization that shares these goals, is less important than joining in these efforts and gaining a feeling of being involved in saving life on the earth. Join and act. Everyone is needed.
We can positively frame this crisis. We are fortunate to live in a time when what we choose to do is vitally important. The antidote to hopelessness, cynicism and magical thinking is awareness of our responsibility and active engagement in this crucial work with others at this crucial time.