At the conference on climate change last weekend I gave some thought to what aspects of responding to climate change really interests me and where best to put my energy. I think I am slowly realizing that, like my parents, what fulfills me is helping people: being of some benefit in relieving suffering. I am a "cool hand on a fevered brow" sort of person. I don't have much in the way of experience in helping people medically, but at every moment I find myself constantly aware of, and concerned with, how people are feeling and coping emotionally and mentally.
As I've become more and more involved with environmental and social issues, like climate change, I've noticed a few ways in which psychology and mental health needs could be to be addressed, and I'm absolutely fascinated by them. Here are a few of the thoughts I had at the conference with respect to psychology and mental health (note, I don't have much of a background in psychological so I don't have the proper terminology to use yet):
- On the one hand there is immediate, or "situation trauma": If you're a victim of torture, war, or natural disaster, you'll likely experience some form of psychological trauma or distress which may benefit from treatment.
- Then there is "vicarious trauma" and the related sorts of trauma that come from engaging empathetically with traumatized people, or even stories about those people. From what I understand, the effects can be very similar to more immediate trauma.
- Another step removed from traumatic events themselves is the kind of suffering that comes from engaging with the issues: activist burnout, compassion fatigue, or "green fatigue" (i.e. becoming worn out from trying be as environmentally conscious as possible).
- Lastly, I see how people deliver and react to news about climate change research, pleas for action, or simply in conversation: from green guilt to the shrug-and-ignore response to outright denial that there is a problem. As I see it, speakers who don't give their listeners any healthy ways of engaging with their issue may being doing more harm (or much less good) than if they had crafted a presentation that empowers people, not only informs them. Similarly, I'll bet there are lots of basic skills we could all learn to help us recognize coping strategies like guilt and denial and choose to react differently.
On that last point, the best presentation I've seen for giving the audience useful ways of responding to the talk was one on peak oil by Michael Lardelli way back in 2005. And the end of the talk, Michael had the usual Things-You-Can-Do slide (i.e. personal actions that lower your own carbon footprint), as well as other slides that pointed out the importance of thinking differently about yourself and the future. Things like: "Start to think about your current car as the last car that you'll own", or "Think of air travel as for emergencies only". These kinds of statements really hit home for me. They aren't hackneyed and ignorable thought-stopping cliches like "reduce, reuse, recycle." They are suggestions for how to change your perspective; they start you on path and give you control and responsibility.
So, recognizing my interest in this area, but also my ignorance, where do I go from here? I'm not entirely sure, yet. But, here are some of the leads I have:
- Angela Bischoff: an activist in Toronto who has lectured on mental health and sustainable activism. I contacted her during my work to organise the Power Shift Canada conference last year.
- Bill Darnell: one of the founders of Greenpeace who I also contacted for Power Shift. As of last year he was also doing work on sustainable activism.
- A few years back I attended a workshop called "From private despair to public action" put on by two trauma experts on PTSD and vicarious trauma in activists. I can't remember their names, nor can I find any info about the workshop online so I'll have to do some digging.
Update: As Nora points out in the comments, the two presenters were Dr. Joan Simalchik and Dr. Yaya de Andrade. Here's the only remaining blurb I can find about the workshop.
- The American Psychological Association has set up a task force that has issued a report on psychology and climate change. The Australian Psychological Society has a whole section of their website on climate change and psychology, and Canadian Psychological Association has a section on environmental psychology.
I'd welcome any other suggestions of places to start.