Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room

Last fall, Ms. Black logged on for her first meeting with Dr. Doherty, who sat, on video, in front of a large, glossy photograph of evergreens.

At 56, he is one of the most visible authorities on climate in psychotherapy, and he hosts a podcast, “Climate Change and Happiness.” In his clinical practice, he reaches beyond standard treatments for anxiety, like cognitive behavioral therapy, to more obscure ones, like existential therapy, conceived to help people fight off despair, and ecotherapy, which explores the client’s relationship to the natural world.

He did not take the usual route to psychology; after graduating from Columbia University, he hitchhiked across the country to work on fishing boats in Alaska, then as a whitewater rafting guide — “the whole Jack London thing” — and as a Greenpeace fund-raiser. Entering graduate school in his 30s, he fell in naturally with the discipline of “ecopsychology.”

At the time, ecopsychology was, as he put it, a “woo-woo area,” with colleagues delving into shamanic rituals and Jungian deep ecology. Dr. Doherty had a more conventional focus, on the physiological effects of anxiety. But he had picked up on an idea that was, at that time, novel: that people could be affected by environmental decay even if they were not physically caught in a disaster.

Recent research has left little doubt that this is happening. A 10-country survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 published last month in The Lancet found startling rates of pessimism. Forty-five percent of respondents said worry about climate negatively affected their daily life. Three-quarters said they believed “the future is frightening,” and 56 percent said “humanity is doomed.”

The blow to young people’s confidence appears to be more profound than with previous threats, such as nuclear war, Dr. Clayton said. “We’ve definitely faced big problems before, but climate change is described as an existential threat,” she said. “It undermines people’s sense of security in a basic way.”

Caitlin Ecklund, 37, a Portland therapist who finished graduate school in 2016, said that nothing in her training — in subjects like buried trauma, family systems, cultural competence and attachment theory — had prepared her to help the young women who began coming to her describing hopelessness and grief over climate. She looks back on those first interactions as “misses.”

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