Climate change is making extreme weather events worse, and that takes both a physical and emotional toll. I recently sat down with psychiatrist and mental health advocate Lise Van Susteren at her home outside Washington, D.C., to discuss the psychological toll of climate change and the need for the mental health community to act. With more than a decade of experience at the intersection of mental health and climate change impacts, Van Susteren’s advocacy has led her to offer therapy to comedian Jack Black on the TV series “Years of Living Dangerously” and push the professional associations to which she belongs to adopt new norms with regard to climate change impacts. Read her recent commentary on the health effects of climate change here and her call to action for psychiatry here.
Moms Clean Air Force: As a physician thinking about the mental health impacts of climate change, can you describe what you’re seeing now in your practice?
Lise Van Susteren: I’m already seeing a lot of anxiety, and I expect it to grow. Increasingly, as Mother Nature gives us reasons to be anxious, we are certain to see a population on edge. I believe already that everybody knows—on some level—that climate change is the problem, so we’re all anxious, whether we admit it or not.
You’ve talked about “climate Cassandras” who are gripped by anxiety about future harm to the planet. What do you mean by this?
In Roman mythology, Cassandra was doomed to be able to always see the truth, although no one around her would believe her—a punishment meted out by the higher gods for some misdeed. A “climate Cassandra” is a person who has known for a long time where we are headed, sees the handwriting on the wall, but can’t get the rest of the population to wake up to take action in time.
On the flipside, there are people denying this is happening. What is your perspective on that denial, as a psychiatrist?
Denial is a defense—but denial is there for a reason. People feel too anxious to know the truth, so it sits on top of the truth in our subconscious. There are many reasons why we deny, but all of them can be taken apart if a person does it well. This is retail therapy one-on-one!
Do you think this is the role of the mental health professional?
Oh, I absolutely do. It is a call to action—the likes of which we have never seen before. Civilization is under attack. Our profession has to say that these [climate] scientists need to be believed. We are doctors: we “get” science, we “get” emergencies, we “get” the need to act. It’s absolutely critical for us to look at this data and not only take action ourselves but also influence others to take action as well.
Our country has experienced extreme weather events back-to-back [Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico]. What are some of the mental health impacts?
We haven’t been able to recover before the next one comes—so the cumulative toll is profoundly traumatizing. What we are seeing on the ground from these storms is that we have not only anxiety but there’s also depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. We’re seeing domestic violence, abuse of alcohol and drugs as people try to cope. With domestic violence, there is also child abuse. Researchers find that for each standard deviation of increase in temperature and change in rainfall, you have a four percent increase in violence between individuals and a 14% increase in violence among groups.
Tell me about children and climate change. What is your understanding of their vulnerability to the kind of anxiety you are talking about?
It’s just immense. It’s heart stopping to think of what the kids are going through. Many are already expressing profound despair at what’s happening in the world. It’s no secret that they know harm is coming to them; the sensitive ones are struggling.
The rage that some young people have toward their government for its inaction is a huge concern of mine. The sine qua non of civilized society is a belief in our institutions. If our youngsters are unprotected by our institutions, our government, our politicians, some may become cynical about government, putting at risk their future involvement. We need involved, caring, informed people to assure a civilized society, and our democratic form of government.
The degree of abandonment that these kids feel is another huge concern. They are not calling it this – yet – but the negligent, reckless inaction on climate that is putting them at such existential risk that it has risen to the level of abuse. As a psychiatrist,
I am required by law, in all 50 states, to report evidence of child abuse in all its forms – physical, sexual, emotional, or by negligence. I have seen child abuse. I know it when I see it. I see it. I can say without the slightest hesitation that inaction on climate is both emotional abuse and it’s abuse from negligence — abandonment of our children. Reporting is mandatory.
You’ve talked about how we need a new kind of motherhood to address climate change. What can mothers do?
As mothers, our primary goal is to keep our children safe. We nurture them so that they can grow up to lead healthy lives and have children of their own for whom they provide a secure and loving environment. Yet, this role is now fundamentally up in the air: we don’t know that we can guarantee that for our kids. As a mom, it’s profoundly upsetting to think of my kids in harm’s way. It makes me want to redouble my efforts to find out where I can be of greatest use.
Depending on the stage in our lives and theirs, we have different needs and pressures. We can weave many opportunities to create good citizens respectful of others into their early years as a foundation—sharing our love for nature by helping them experience the beauty and bounty of nature and interacting with the earth in ways that promote sustainability. Planting a vegetable garden comes to mind. School and community activities can draw us together with peer groups, showing that we seek to assure that others are safe and taken care of as well. Across the span of our lives, we can take action in different places. When the intensity of taking care of young children passes, we may have more time to work on “upstream” systemic impacts.
There is a table laden with opportunities and all of us have a role – or many roles – to play. We must seize upon them because it is the essence of the call to be caretakers for our children and those of the future.
What gives you hope that mental health community will rise to the challenge of climate change?
I’m very proud to say that the Climate Psychiatry Alliance has been making progress with our professional organizations. The Alliance is working to raise consciousness of how much mental health practitioners can do to address the threats climate change poses. We can talk about policy, science, emergencies, kids, safety, denial, resistance—covering the entire spectrum of issues around climate change. We have a unique opportunity to help, so its critical that we run with this
What is your advice for parents with children who may be anxious about climate change?
It’s exceedingly important to address the fears that a child brings up. Ask questions and never minimize their fears. Tell them you understand they’re fearful and then tell them it’s why you are taking action: “That’s why we went to that march, why we’ve got a vegetable garden, why we’re taking the train instead of an airplane, why we’re walking out in nature to show our reverence for Mother Nature and to recognize our place in it.” These are all the things that you can do. Of course, calibrate [your examples and language] according to the child’s age, but meet those fears head-on. Understanding their fears and talking openly in a safe space is key. List off the things that you’re doing so that you help them craft an action plan. In doing so, you are building the kind of active citizenry we will need even more in the years to come.