By Nicole Thornton
* Title taken from a 2004 interview with John Fraser, psychologist and environmentalist.
The mental health and emotional wellbeing of environmental and sustainability professionals
Who looks after the health of those who look after our natural and social environment? Why do we care and why is it important?
These questions have been bubbling away in my head for the last few years. It stemmed from my own experience as an environmental scientist struggling with climate-related clinical depression for nearly four years. My depression was triggered by the lost political opportunities that came out of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, December 2009. It was also influenced by watching friends, colleagues and peers struggle with their own feelings and motivations about the potential losses to the natural ecosystems and human communities that they love and study.
I felt like a fool having “climate depression” (as I called it) as I knew of no-one who had depression that was connected to climate change. I am familiar with depression and other mental health issues as it runs in both sides of my family. I have many friends who have depression, so I do not have any issues with talking about it, accepting that it is an illness, or understanding the drivers, causes and symptoms that are associated with poor mental health. My depression wasn’t about self or self-worth. I wasn’t suicidal (I was just a hermit who had no energy or desire to go anywhere or visit people). Who gets depression from external factors? It wasn’t until I was halfway through it that I realised I had depression at all, and even longer before I connected that it was due to my complete loss of hope in our lack of real action on climate change. I had come to believe, in my gut and my heart, that we could not save ourselves and that we would be dead in a few generations.
This utter loss of hope led to a profound sense of loss and grief which still upsets me when I think about it, even now, a couple of years since my depression lifted.
Why do we need a shrink?
So, who cares if environmental and sustainability professionals are feeling the blues?
During my conversations with peers, some have questioned why this conversation matters at all. We should just be more positive, and stop focusing on the negative. For some, this no doubt works.
However, for many, ignoring our feelings and thoughts about issues which are important to us doesn’t make them go away. It just buries them. And environmental professionals are just like everyone else; we can’t do our job properly if we are mentally and emotionally sick.
Some symptoms that occur when we don’t look after our emotional and mental health include:
Some of the factors that people mentioned which influenced their mental state included:
What conversations are already happening?
There are some great conversations and resources already happening that concern our mental and emotional health in this area, but they can be hard to find if you don't know where to look.
These conversations include:
Personal experiences have motivated some (such as Ann Murugan) to create businesses which encourage people to talk about mental health in environmental professions and empower people, via workshops and other tools, to make a positive impact in our world.
Even the Australian Psychology Society takes this topic seriously by showcasing psychology’s role in addressing climate change and environmental threats. They have created an excellent site which lists a growing number of papers and organisations who are dealing with this issue. Psychology for a Safe Climate are doing excellent work getting the psychology profession in Australia to think about and do research in this area.
These groups and individuals inspire and empower me. My own search for information and support during my depression turned up very little because I was using the wrong search terms. And I didn’t know who to talk to who could lead me in the right direction. How do you get the right answers if you don’t know how to ask the right questions? Plus, I felt foolish talking about my illness when I knew of no other person who had climate-related depression. It was extremely isolating and meant my recovery took longer than necessary.
Moving the conversation into the public domain
Now that my health has improved, I often bring up this topic in conversation to see what people say, and have been surprised at the number of people who have had similar experiences (where were they when I needed them!!??). And nearly all of them gave overwhelmingly positive responses to my suggestion of creating a casual support group, writing a paper about this topic, or spreading the conversation via social media. It is empowering to acknowledge and accept how we feel, especially when we share with others.
Their response shows there are many people like me in the world, and we need an easier way to connect and support each other. This is why we started the Climate Wellbeing Network. Each of us in the organising committee felt a similar need to do something in this space, and to fill an obvious gap.
This blog is my start in getting more of us connected, and progressing the conversation into our professions and into mainstream media. It’s not much, but it’s another step in the journey.
So, who wants to join me for the journey and the conversation?
* * *
Nicole Thornton has worked as an environmental scientist for more than 20 years. She has had a diverse career which has ranged from sustainable and outdoor education and ecotourism in Australia, Canada and the UK (her favourite being the Daintree and Cape Tribulation rainforest in far north Queensland) to household water research and social practices during the recent Millenium drought in Australia; from water sensitive cities to liveable and sustainable households and communities. Her interests are varied and include good food, stories and conversation, getting out and exploring nature, traveling, and meeting new people. Oh, and actually stopping to smell the roses whenever she walks past.
Members of the Climate Wellbeing Network regularly post here.