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Katherine Rowland: Whole Earth Mental Health

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September 20, 2012

The evolving field of ecopsychology aims to cure what ails us by bridging the human-nature rift.

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Image from Flickr via Poytr

By Katherine Rowland

“The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment,” said Herman Daly in his 1977 treatise Steady State Economics, invoking the notion that global financial systems hang in careful balance dependent on the planet’s environmental health—a rare idea for the time. Economists, environmentalists, and social scientists alike have since carried variations of Daly’s logic to consumers and boardroom members, urging the public and private sectors to recognize that capital can only be as healthy as the resources on which it depends. Even these ambitious ideas, though, don’t question the underlying assumption that the whole wild world exists for man to mine and plunder, and that we humans are separate from the nature rather than a part of it.

The group of specialists now calling bluff on this disconnection is a surprising one, coming not from wildlife biology or atmospheric science but from mental health professions. Many suggest that it’s high time to reframe Daly’s adage to include the human psyche. An evolving field known as “ecopsychology” proposes that the pervasive but fictive gulf between man and nature not only drives ecological decline, but also contributes to modern afflictions such as depression, anxiety, obesity and heart disease. From tenuous roots in Hippie-era urgings that we all be one with mother earth, ecopsychology has in recent years emerged as a legitimate approach to mental health, elaborating on research showing that people benefit from contact with nature—and suffer from its absence.

As If the Whole Earth Mattered

Oregon-based clinical psychologist Thomas Doherty has been at the forefront of efforts to usher the field into the realm of academic credibility. One of the directors of the American Psychological Association’s recently established Climate Change Task Force, Doherty is encouraging his mental health colleagues to address the psychic damage caused by ecological decline and the modern world’s insistent separateness from nature.

“Ecopsychology is not a discipline, so much as it is a social movement, a world view,” he says. Although practitioners have evolved a number of diverse treatment methods, from conducting therapy sessions out of doors to helping clients grieve toxic spills and species loss, Doherty says one of the unifying ideas in ecopsychology is its attempt to integrate a different set of questions into clinical practice. What, for example, does it mean to live as part of the web of life, but to behave as if we didn’t?

Ecopsychology endeavors to explode the nature-culture, mind-body binaries that for centuries have informed how we measure sanity and health. This bifurcating tendency is at the murky core of modern pathologies.

The seeming simplicity of this question obscures its underlying radicalism. “Psychology, as part of the Western tradition, is a Cartesian enterprise,” says Doherty. “It consciously tries to separate humans from the rest of nature.” The widely accepted rift between nature and humanity has supposed roots as broad and deep as the advent of language, of agriculture, the legacy of the Enlightenment. Ecopsychology endeavors to explode the nature-culture, mind-body binaries that for centuries have informed how we measure sanity and health. This bifurcating tendency doesn’t preserve civilization from savagery, but rather is at the murky core of modern pathologies, like anxiety, substance abuse, and compulsive shopping. In other words, it is only because we are at such a remove from nature that we can behave the way we do: using resources with no regard for consequence, consuming goods with no thought as to their production. Doherty asks “what if we were to reinvent psychology so that at its heart it was an ecological discipline?” Could changing our relationship to nature hold the key to mental health?

Shamans and Scientists

While aspects of ecopsychology emerged in the 1960s, congruent with the gathering force of the environmental movement, it was not really until the 1990s that it gained traction. In 1992 social historian Theodore Rozak (who takes credit for the term “counter-culture”) introduced “ecopsychology” into the vernacular, and called on practitioners to pursue “psychology as if the whole earth mattered.” The diversity in the field suggests that there is no general consensus on what this exactly means. Today, adherents hail from ranks as diverse as therapists, clinical researchers, wilderness guides, shamans, activists and anthropologists, whose methods range from conducting therapy sessions in parks, to vision quests, to documenting the healing qualities of green spaces, and probing what motivates someone to “sell their own nest.” But despite its eclecticism, ecopsychology has steadily begun to penetrate mainstream psychological circles. In 2010, Doherty launched the first peer-reviewed journal devoted to the subject, and this year MIT released a dedicated anthology. As a field of advanced study, ecopsychology degrees and courses are now offered by Lewis and Clark, Oberlin, and the University of Wisconsin, among other institutions.

How does depression correspond to a ruined landscape, or anxiety link to global warming or visions of future generations walking round a world eternally diminished?

However, when it comes to hard facts and data, ecopsychology begins to falter. While there is a robust literature supporting the idea that spending time in nature offers a host of health benefits, such as decreased stress, improved ability to focus, and even lowered risk for heart disease, proving cause and effect is far from clear. “There’s a lot of research showing the psychological benefits of nature. But does the loss of the natural world degrade mental health? That’s a difficult conclusion to support,” says experimental psychologist John Davis. How, for example, does depression correspond to a ruined landscape, or anxiety link to global warming or visions of future generations walking round a world eternally diminished? Although more and more research has tried to broach these issues, much of the relationship between mental health and nature remains elusive, falling into chasms described simply as “psyche,” “consciousness,” and “modern life.” But Davis suggests that even if the connections are drawn in wavering lines, they underscore an important shift in psychological practice. Rather than consider anxiety or depression as outcomes of strictly personal history and circumstance, ecopsychology admits the possibility that outside events and circumstance bear on mental health. “Sometimes,” says Davis, “suffering really is about the planet.”

The Connection Cure

After years of psychiatric treatment that did little to resolve his long-standing depression, a patient, whom we’ll call Paul, enlisted the services of an ecopsychologist. Paul had taken a number of drugs to manage his symptoms and weekly laid out on the proverbial couch to reflect on his childhood and past relationships, “but this persistent sense of doom remained,” he says. “If the world is going to hell, I just couldn’t really see the point of carrying on everyday. Raising my family, working my job seemed really futile to the point of absurdity, if we are destroying the earth so quickly that my kids will just be left with a mess.”

As a practitioner, Davis came to ecopsychology with similar preoccupations in mind. Once captivated by the psychological ramifications of living through the Cold War, in the early 1980s, he turned his attention to the environment: “Just as the atomic clock was moving further from midnight, I began to ask what it’s like for young people to grow up with a sense of environmental damage, devastation, and ecological peril.” Widespread environmental destruction, and sobering realities like climate change can impinge on the mental health of youth, he says, taking away from the sense of having options or a positive future.

“It’s a form of insanity that we’re in the process of destroying our own life support systems.”

For Davis, as well as a significant number of ecopsychologists and ecotherapists, the solution is not to take stock of silver linings, but rather to more actively engage with feelings of pain and loss. He describes contemporary attitudes toward the environment as akin to a passerby blithely strolling as a woman is murdered in the street. “There’s a learned helplessness,” he says. “We grow numb rather than face what’s really going on. We need to learn how to be active participants rather than bystanders to a tragedy.”

Your childhood house is now dust buried beneath a strip mall; the apple tree that once gave you shade has been cut, burned, turned to splinter; the rivers where you once fished now run thick with toxic silt. Youth inherit this depletion and everywhere is starving, poisoned, desiccated, stripped and out of balance.

“This environmental destruction can cause a profound sense of loss,” says clinical therapist Linda Buzell, founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy. “And it’s important to reckon with what that means, and really experience that pain in order to move through it.”

We suffer because we’re removed from nature; nature suffers because we are removed from it.

For Paul, therapy involved a serious inquiry into how he valued nature. “I spent a lot of time thinking about this tree that I used to love in a field by my house, and how angry I was when it was cut down so that the field could be turned into one of those McMansion developments.” Paul’s therapist encouraged him to spend more time outdoors. “There was a whole year when I just meditated on leaves. At first I didn’t really think much about them, but it became a gateway to start thinking about how I was connected to this enormous, incredible ecosystem, and I began talking about these issues with my wife and friends, and teaching my kids about ecology.”

But achieving reconciliation is rarely an easy process, offers psychologist and educator Craig Chalquist, who with Buzell recently authored Healing with Nature in Mind. “The ecological crisis is also a crisis of human consciousness,” he says. “Much of modern culture is dedicated to helping us numb ourselves. We become apathetic, paralyzed, to protect ourselves from feeling overwhelmed.”

Part of ecopsychologists’ solution rests in simply opening up a space for people to give voice to ambient worries and free-floating distress. Herein, suggests Chalquist, ecopsychology can assume an advocacy role, helping people to not only identify their concerns, but strategize ways to address environmental damage in their own communities and professional lives.

Eco-Grief and Eco-Action

Buzzell describes the process of becoming conscious of ecological decline as similar to the stages of grief that accompany the death of a loved one: from despair, it’s possible to move toward acceptance. Looking to the widespread apathy in younger generations—“They know they got a raw deal!” – Buzzell maintains that helping youth validate their anger can serve to empower them to make behavioral changes in their own lives; they don’t have to adhere to the wasteful, anti-ecological, consumerist precedents set by their parents, she says.

But here, the field confronts a challenge larger than internalized eco-grief. While the modern world’s diminished landscapes may contribute to malaise, so too does the modern mind, with its heavy bent toward apathy and consumer appetites, facilitate ecological degradation. The current state of the world is in and of itself a symptom of an “insane disconnection between humans and the environment,” says Buzzell. “From top to bottom across modern culture, this rift is evident. It’s a form of insanity that we’re in the process of destroying our own life support systems.”

“It’s possible,” says Chalquist, “to regard climate change as a consequence of mental health. Not in terms of strict cause and effect, but as systemic consequences. You tune out the built environment, you buy more stuff to distract yourself. We’re living and participating in a system that industrializes the destruction of the world.”

“What is the effect of global climate change on the psyche of young people, growing up in full knowledge that the world they’re inheriting is different from the world of their parents?” asks Buzzell. “Scientists are now saying, sorry folks, we’ve crossed the line. So it’s really time to focus on resilience, learning how to live on a new planet—it’s changing so quickly it’s no longer the same planet you were born on.”

Although ecopsychology introduces a provocative philosophical and analytical approach to conventional mental health practices, it rests on a slippery theoretical ground, and in its diversity exists both its greatest assets and weaknesses. Searching for a therapist to whom to bring your environmental woes, you are as likely to find a clinical practitioner as you are a shamanic guide, and the field’s general inclusiveness makes for some strange bedfellows. This inclusiveness, however, is also what gives the field its dynamism: ecopsychology rallies the mainstream and the unorthodox round a central problem, on the unique premise that treating a pervasive malady is more important than maintaining disciplinary divides.

However, adherents of all stripes expound an ideal of ecological connectedness, against which degrees of separation are meted out in mental suffering. We suffer because we’re removed from nature; nature suffers because we are removed from it. Yet this ideal does not exist in modern life, but rather reaches across time and culture to restore mankind to some archetypal form, composed of equal parts history, myth and longing. “All we’re doing is remembering what we’ve lost,” says ecopsychologist Betsy Perluss. “We’re not creating anything new. This is in our DNA.” Even in its most radical interpretations, psychology remains a small-scale enterprise, typically focused on individual minds, rather than entire cultures. Its very person-centered approach, treating one individual at a time, might undermine the larger goal of enjoining humanity and nature. But while ecopsychology may not achieve a culture-wide revolution, let alone halt what Chalquist calls industrialized destruction, it frames the resource-use mentality as sickness, and in so doing may be positioned to address the crises of earth and psyche it generates.

Katherine Rowland is a journalist currently based in New York. Her work has appeared in Nature, the Financial Times, the Independent, OnEarth and other publications.

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6 comments for Katherine Rowland: Whole Earth Mental Health

  1. Comment by Beth Lewis on September 20, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Pretty amazing, Katie.

  2. Comment by Hazel Pfeifer on September 25, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Fascinating article, such a good read.

  3. Comment by Nikole on January 11, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Congrats to our faculty members Linda Buzell, Craig Chalquist, and Betsy Perluss for being quoted in the article.
    -Nikole Hollenitsch
    Marketing Coordinator
    Pacifica Graduate Institute

  4. Comment by Joshua Sloan on January 11, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    as a designer, i’m drawn to ways to encourage access to nature in the built environment – parks, trees, etc. – and to improve the efficacy of those spaces. i think it not only has environmental benefits, but – as you mention – emotional and cognitive benefits. i wondered if you had looked into this aspect and run across the kaplan’s work, such as “humanscape”. i’m not entirely convinced by some of their findings – mostly for philosophically technical reasons – but i think it’s an interesting perspective. a lot of the work landscape architects do is certainly tied to “healing spaces” in hospitals and similar environments, so that is worthy of further integration with your thoughts, too. thanks for the article.

  5. Comment by Lori Pye on January 16, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    If you are interested in ecopsychology, you might be interested in the first graduate school that focuses its degrees on ecopsychology and sustainability: Viridis Graduate Institute at http://www.viridisedu.org

  6. Comment by Larry Glover on January 7, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Appreciate the article Katherine. I find it provocative and balanced. Interestingly, I came across it while searching for a term to specifically describe a ‘grief for loss of place or of nature.’ Haven’t found such a thing though I seem to remember such a word coming out of Australia a few years back. Nevertheless, Thanks for covering this topic.

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