Is climate change contributing to the mental health crisis?

Climate change denial is disordered thinking.  .  Climate change is not an environmental problem or a technological problem; it is a cultural problem and a thinking problem. “We are the environmental crisis; the environmental crisis is inherent in everything we believe and do; it is inherent in the context of our lives” (Neil Evernden, 1985, p. 128).

Sally Weintrobe, in Engaging with Climate Change (2013), asserts that “our thoughts may be distorted by unconscious processes which include defences against knowing what we feel and think, as a way of protecting ourselves from facing ‘too much reality’” (p.6).  To defend ourselves from intolerable anxiety concerning climate change, we may deploy unconscious mechanisms such as projection, splitting and idealization, as well as three forms of denial:

  • denialism “involves campaigns of misinformation about climate change funded by corporate and ideological interests”;
  • negation “involves saying that something that is, is not” in order to defend against feelings of shock and loss; and
  • disavowal involves the paradox of knowing and not-knowing at the same time – a more serious and intractable form of denial because it minimizes reality (p.7).

Projection is an unconscious mechanism for defending against anxiety about feeling powerless (p.36); it is the mental trick of ascribing our vulnerabilities onto the very people we want to engage, not out of malice, but in order to feel more free and powerful.

On the face of it, to deny reality in an outright way (negation) can seem a more serious evasion than seeing it, but with one eye only (disavowal).  However, when one looks beneath the surface and studies the underlying structure of the defences in each case, disavowal is a more serious and intractable form of denial.  While negation says no to the truth, it does not distort the truth.  Disavowal, by contrast, can be highly organized at an unconscious level and can become entrenched.  It distorts the truth in a variety of artful ways.  Disavowal can lead us further and further away from accepting the reality of climate change.  This is because the  more reality is systematically avoided through making it insignificant or through distortion, the more anxiety builds up unconsciously, and the greater is the need to defend with further disavowal. ~ Sally Weintrobe, p7

Restorative healing attends to the learner’s disordered thinking, manifest as denial, negation and disavowal about climate change.

Many environmental educators have identified the need to address affective and spiritual aspects of living.  Darlene Clover insists that “human separation from the rest of nature is at the root of many of our emotional, psychological, and socio-ecological problems” (Clover, p.161).  O’Sullivan’s declares that the “dynamics of denial, despair and grief” prevent us from dealing with environmental degradation (O’Sullivan, 2002, p.5).  Kagawa and Selby recommend that “storm-ready pedagogy requires a strong affective dimension” (Kagawa & Selby, p.215) because actual and potential disasters as well as climate-changed futures “are likely to elicit strong emotions in the learner that need to be addressed. To learn that a disaster might ravage one’s community or to learn about the stark consequences of runaway climate change can be frightening, if not nightmarish” (p.214).

The disciplines of psychology and ecopsychology are building a significant body of scholarship on mental health phenomenon related to climate change.  Glenn Albrecht and other Australian researchers are making significant contributions.  Time and space do not permit a full exploration of the psychology of climate change, but I offer these excerpts from Sally Weintrobe’s recent book, Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2013), in which she discusses pervasive disavowal of climate change:

“The problem with disavowal is, not least, that it involves a severe attack on thinking…disavowal can result in confusion and inability to think with a sense of proportion” (Weintrobe, p.39).  

“Proportional thinking is the first casualty of the environmental crisis we are in.  We are trying, unsuccessfully, to manage contrary internal positions within our psyches, where we are both overwhelmed by anxiety and not anxious at all” (p.46).

“Disavowal involves radical splitting and a range of strategies that ensure that reality can be seen and not seen at one and the same time.  Disavowal is often called turning a blind eye, but this description does not go far enough in distinguishing disavowal from negation.  There are two key differences.  First, with disavowal our more wish-fulfilling narcissistic part may have come under the sway of a more entrenched arrogant attitude that can exert a powerful hold on the psyche.  Second, disavowal may be part of a more organized and enduring defensive structure, whereas negation is typically a more transitory defence against anxiety” (p.38).

“Disavowal is part of a pathological organization.  With disavowal, anxiety may be systematically gotten rid of, sometimes in a flash, through a range of ‘quick fixes’.  A central quick fix is minimizing or obliterating any sense that facing reality entails facing any loss.  Reality may be seen to be there, but the loss that it signals has no or little significance in this state.  Disavowal aims to block mourning at the stage before sadness, grieving and reconciliation, and in this sense may be seen as a form of arrested, failed mourning, or melancholia, as Freud described it.  …Triumph is an important part of disavowal.  The arrogant omnipotent part of the self feels very clever for being able to ‘solve’ painful problems so instantly.  The delusion that nothing is lost because loss itself has no meaning is perhaps the ultimate triumph.  Disavowal is also artful.  It can cleverly bend, reverse and warp the truth, and fraudulent thinking flourishes in this state of mind” (Weintrobe, p.39).

Weintrobe advises that when a person acknowledges disavowal and accepts reality, there is often a disintegration of the sense of self.  The person struggles to re-integrate and faces crippling anxieties and burden of guilt – crippling because they have been split off.  In shamanism, ‘soul retrieval’ is the healing practice that finds and re-integrates split off parts of the psyche.  Now there is a need to develop a collective soul retrieval practice that can work with groups as well as with individuals to provide healing from disassociation and splitting related to climate change disavowal.

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