Mental health professionals see demand for conversations about climate change

LEICESTER, N.C. — Climate change can be a touchy subject. The topic can spark debates between those who believe and those who don’t. It can evoke feelings of stress or guilt, or at the very least, Lisa Perry said many of the folks she talks to, believe bringing up climate change will kill the mood.

“Even if you talk to a lot of people, just down the street, or family or friends or whatever and they say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re screwed. We’re doomed,’ and then they change the subject,” she said. “In counseling people are less likely to change the subject.”

That’s why the Leicester therapist believes her clients have been bring up the topic more and more often in her sessions, especially after 2020.

“I never really saw the outside world come into counseling so much,” she said.

Especially after major global disasters like wildfires or hurricanes, Perry said she’s noticed some of her clients are eager to share their thoughts and anxieties with someone and often that defaults to her.

“It’s just so there and it’s terrifying so people can kind of dance around it because it’s hard to even touch,” she said.

Currently though, while the American Psychological Association recognizes climate change can have a psychological impact, there are few if any standard guidelines for how therapists should navigate these topics.

The Climate Psychology Alliance, a nonprofit made up of mental health professionals is working to change that, by creating a network of what they call “Climate Aware Therapists.” Their mission is simple, provide resources to help psychologists validate and explore climate concerns with their clients, and help them develop healthy outlets to manage those concerns.

Sarah Rawleigh discovered the group when she started looking for someone to talk to about her own climate-related anxieties.

“I myself was struggling with emotions anxiety, hopelessness, anger,” she said.

As a clinical social worker herself, Rawleigh recognized those were feelings psychologists are trained to manage around other subjects, so she figured there had to be a way to explore them around climate change. Through the alliance, she said she joined a group of other psychologists interested in exploring the topic and she said it’s not only helped her manage her concerns, but helped prepare her to navigate those conversations with her clients.

“Especially in groups, people start to realize, oh I’m not alone,” she said.

Rawleigh believes that perceived isolation one of the major factors driving the anxiety in her clients, but data shows climate concerns are growing more and more common.

According to a study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, nearly three in four Americans believe in global warming and 64 percent are very or somewhat worried about the phenomenon. Yet at the same time, the study shows 59 percent of Americans underestimate how common those concerns are.

For Perry, being a climate aware therapist means creating a space where her clients can feel comfortable bringing up those concerns without feeling judged or like it’s going to spark a debate.

“I’m just trying to be welcoming and it just seems to blossom,” she said. “Sometimes it’s what’s going to happen to my home or am I going to be able to feed myself. Do I want to have children? That constantly comes up. If somebody does have children, how can I protect my children?”

As with other issues outside of their clients’ control, Perry said there’s no easy answer to those questions and concerns, but so far, she said just being a sounding board can help.

“We’re all new at this,” she said. “We’re all pioneers.”

Both Perry and Rawleigh have joined the Climate Aware Therapist directory, but they say so far, no one has sought them out solely for to talk about climate concerns. Instead, they say those anxieties come up organically in session and they navigate them accordingly.

Rawleigh is also hoping to start a series of “Climate Cafés” to give those concerned another place to talk about climate change and come up with ways to take action.

“We’re not trying to pressure people,” she said. “It’s just more helping them work it out themselves or inviting them to join groups.”

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Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.