Now lots of Bryant’s clients wanted to talk about climate change. They wanted to talk about how strange and disorienting and scary this new reality felt, about what the future might be like and how they might face it, about how to deal with all the strong feelings — helplessness, rage, depression, guilt — being stirred up inside them.
As a therapist, Bryant found himself unsure how to respond. He grew up deeply interested in science and nature — he was a biology major before his fascination with human behavior turned him toward social work — but he always thought of those interests as separate from the profession he would eventually choose. And while his clinical education offered lots of training in, say, substance abuse or family therapy, there was nothing about environmental crisis, or how to treat patients whose mental health was affected by it. He began reaching out to other counselors, who had similar stories. They came from a variety of clinical backgrounds and orientations, but none of their trainings had covered issues like climate change or environmental anxiety.
Bryant immersed himself in the subject, joining and founding associations of climate-concerned therapists. The Pacific Northwest, after all, was hardly alone in seeing scary new impacts, and lots of places were experiencing far worse. He searched for emerging research on the intersection of climate change and psychology, which was scattered across a variety of fields and journals, and eventually started a website, Climate & Mind, to serve as a sort of clearing house for other therapists searching for resources. Instead, the site became an unexpected window into the experience of would-be patients: Bryant found himself receiving messages from people around the world who stumbled across it while looking for help.
Over and over, he read the same story, of potential patients who’d gone looking for someone to talk to about climate change and other environmental crises, only to be told that they were overreacting — that their concern, and not the climate, was what was out of whack and in need of treatment. (This was a story common enough to have become a joke, another therapist told me: “You come in and talk about how anxious you are that fossil-fuel companies continue to pump CO2 into the air, and your therapist says, ‘So, tell me about your mother.’”)
In many of the messages, people asked Bryant for referrals to climate-focused therapists in Houston or Canada or Taiwan, wherever it was the writer lived. He found himself apologizing repeatedly. “I can’t,” he’d write. “The field doesn’t really exist yet.” But it was clear to him that the messages, like the smoke, were a sign of a bigger change on the way.
“I’m so glad that we have each other to process this,” she said, “because we’re humans living through this, too. I have my own trauma responses to it, I have my own grief process around it, I have my own fury at government and oil companies, and I think I don’t want to burden my clients with my own emotional response to it.”
“I had a client recently say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry to burden you with all of my climate anxiety!’” Zoey Rogers, a clinical psychologist, said in response. “And I was like: ‘No, it’s OK. I’m in it with you.’”
In a field that has long emphasized boundaries, discouraging therapists from bringing their own issues or experiences into the therapy room, climate therapy offers a particular challenge: Separation can be harder when the problems at hand affect therapist and client alike. Some therapists I spoke to were worried about navigating the breakdown of barriers, while others had embraced it. “There is no place on the planet that won’t eventually be impacted, where client and therapist won’t be in it together,” a family therapist wrote in a CPA-NA newsletter. “Most therapists I know have become more vulnerable and self-disclosing in their practice.”
On the Zoom, Annie Dwyer, still a counselor in training, told the group that she had been thinking about how to apply traditional trauma treatments to environmental losses. While therapy has often centered on helping people move, mentally, away from the feelings of danger they experienced in the past into the safer world of the present, that formula doesn’t apply to living with an ongoing threat, or feeling grief over a loss that never stops. “If you look at or consider typical theoretical framings of something like post-traumatic growth, which is the understanding of this idea that people can sort of grow and become stronger and better after a traumatic event,” she said, then the climate crisis poses a dilemma because “there is no afterwards, right? There is no resolution anytime in our lifetimes to this crisis that we nonetheless have to build the capacities to face and to endure and to hopefully engage.”
“How,” she asked, “do you think about resilience apart from resolution?”
Nicole Torres, who practices in Bellingham, Wash., told the group that she sometimes tells her clients about her first time seeing a sky full of stars after growing up in New York City. She had no idea there were so many. She believes many of her patients are also disconnected from the natural world, which means that they struggle to process or even recognize the grief and alienation that comes from living in a society that treats nature as other, a resource to be used and discarded.
“I’m so excited by what you’re bringing in,” Woollacott replied. “I’m doing psychoanalytic training at the moment, and we study attachment theory” — how the stability of early emotional bonds affects future relationships and feelings of well-being. “But nowhere in the literature does it talk about our attachment to the land.”