18 Jan 2021

Ecotherapy: Mental health and the climate crisis

7:54 am on 18 January 2021

More people are seeking counselling over their concerns about the looming climate crisis, a practice offering the "ecotherapy" services says.

Surviving a storm concept as a battered stressed tree blown by violent winds in flood waters as an anxiety or abuse metaphor to withstand psychological or physical pain with 3D illustration elements.

Photo: 123rf

If you search google for the phrase "climate change counselling", one of first results is a website for a Christchurch practice called Lucid Psychotherapy, which offers ecotherapy services.

Ecotherapy - according to Lucid - is an approach within counselling, psychotherapy, and psychology that recognises the importance of our environment.

"Ultimately ecotherapy understands that personal and environmental health are interdependent, and cannot ultimately be separated," the website says.

Psychotherapist Michael Apathy works at Lucid Psychotherapy and has been using ecotherapy to help others for about eight or nine years.

Demand is on the rise, he says - although it's an "odd one".

"I haven't actually seen a lot of demand for one-to-one ecotherapy, though this is increasing, and other mental health practitioners have seen significant demand for one-to-one work," Apathy says.

"What I have seen is a strong and increasing demand for workshops and other group-based forms of ecotherapy. I believe this is because the climate and ecological crisis is such a massive group/societal based issue, that people naturally feel drawn to addressing it in group contexts. These problems are more bearable and easier to face, when faced as part of a group.

"I am really trying to encourage [other psychologists and counsellors] to make that group format open to people."

Two of the most common issues Apathy sees are climate/ecological anxiety, and climate/ecological based hopelessness or depression.

"Often the cause for both of these problems is unaddressed sadness or anger about the massive injustices and losses that are occurring now, and that will worsen."

The New Zealand Psychological Society website says its clinician members are "already seeing emotional distress in clients that is being described in the international literature by terms as eco-anxiety, eco-paralysis, climate despair or solastalgia - a form of existential distress, commonly related to environmental change".

The 2017 Royal Society Report Human Health Impacts of Climate Change for New Zealand notes: "For New Zealanders, the natural environment is at the heart of the nation's identity, particularly for Māori, shaping the economy, lifestyles and culture. Disruption of cherished bonds between individuals and their environment, such as during the managed retreat of threatened coastal communities, can cause grief, loss, and anxiety".

Apathy says climate anxiety and a hopeless, depressive experience in the face of the environmental issues the world has are "very common" issues he comes across.

"In my experience as a psychotherapist I don't work with children but teens and adults. Overall, it tends to be younger people who are most affected - they will have to live with this [climate change] the longest and will be most affected.

"Other groups [affected] are activist communities. They are on the coal face and ... it is taking a toll."

Scientists working on climate or environmental subjects are also on that coal face, Apathy says, and minority groups like Pacific peoples from small island nations are more likely to be directly affected by climate change, sooner.

What is ecotherapy?

Apathy says ecotherapy is a diverse field that's hard to define.

"I can't speak for all, but to me I almost imagine the field to be a bit of a spectrum. On one end, using calm, healing, restorative aspects of nature to heal human beings - therapy in beautiful nature. That's down one end... the other end of the spectrum is ... helping humans to help nature.

"For instance, helping environmental and climate justice activists to be more psychologically resilient so that they can be more effective in protecting nature. As the climate and ecological crisis has worsened, I've been working more and more at the end of the spectrum which is about helping humans to protect nature."

Lucid Psychotherapy says ecotherapy is informed by a wide variety of disciplines.

"From this vast range of influences, ecotherapy gathers together understandings and practices that use the power of our relationship with the natural environment to assist with personal healing, or to help people respond clearly and effectively to environmental issues, or both."

Apathy does not think we are doing enough work on the mental health side of climate change impacts - "not at all".

"I think that the climate crisis and ecological crisis needs to be front and centre of our health and mental health system. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the consequences.

He says his profession has tended to stand on the sidelines.

"But you can't be neutral on a moving train. Neutrality is being complicit in the climate crisis. It's time to get engaged as a profession."

The New Zealand Psychological Society website says: "As psychologists, we function to promote the wellbeing of society. So it is vital that as a discipline, we acknowledge the profound impact humans collectively are having on the environment and urgently work to counter the ill-effects to the health and wellbeing of people and planet.

Its position statement on Environmental Wellbeing and Responsibility to Society sums up its approach, saying it will "work to ensure that psychologists contribute to mitigating the ill-effects of a climate-turbulent future".

"As psychologists we are beginning to understand many of the adaptive measures that can help people to cope with climate change.

"These include individual as well as community-based interventions that will enable capacity building and, among many other options, environmental preservation programmes that can provide 'a sense of stewardship and personal investment' that can mitigate the potentially negative psychological effects."

It notes that its climate change response will have to - "more than at any other time" - need to "understand the behaviour of people, their motivations, their frustration and anger, their helplessness, depression and suicidal intent".

"We are already seeing this as the reality of climate breakdown is experienced and yet, we can take steps to ensure that those most vulnerable and most disenfranchised will maintain a sense of hope."

The society has established a Climate Psychology Taskforce which it says actively promotes climate psychology through professional education amongst a range of other work.

Preparing to support climate migrants

University of Auckland co-head of school at Te Wānanga o Waipapa Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath is looking at how New Zealand could ready its health system to support the mental health needs of Pacific climate migrants.

"The intention ... is that it is to try and make sense of the nexus between mental health and wellbeing and climate change. Because often they are addressed quite separately," Tiatia-Seath says.

The three-year project being conducted in the Cook Islands, Niue and Christchurch already has some preliminary findings.

"Pacific peoples, we are intimately entwined with the land and the environment and the moana, so when you do lose that or it has been impacted by natural disasters in any kind of way, or forced to relocate or migrate to another setting, one can expect that there will be some impact on mental health and wellbeing."

Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, Co-Head of School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies, University of Auckland

Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath. Photo: Auckland University

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to come see there is a correlation," Tiatia-Seath says.

"With any population that is forced to migrate - with climate change induced migration - one would assume that in the new setting there are added stresses on top of leaving your home environment and that could be looking for a job, engaging in the ins and outs of the new country.

"Mental health disorders, those would be exacerbated ... things like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, loss of a sense of belonging and quite possibly identity issues.

"These are the types of things we want to do a deep dive into."

In New Zealand, we have an opportunity to prepare to provide adequate services, Tiatia-Seath says.

"The fact is we don't have the workforce to be able to cater to, respond to, those unique circumstances so I think we should have the foresight to develop that workforce so they are on the ground when it happens.

"That means training more clinicians, social workers, psychologists, youth workers... to be prepared in how best to support families with the relocations."

Tiatia-Seath hoped her research would provide a "compass" to navigating mental health and climate change issues for Pacific peoples.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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