A small group of Pittsburgh high school students have set up chairs on the patio outside the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens for a monthly climate protection meeting organized by Communitopia.
Each student expressed their own reasons for commitment, as Claire Bertolet, a ninth grader at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, said: “I’m afraid life won’t be like it is today and we won’t live as comfortably,” she said. In the future it will be too late and we won’t have time to react. “
Some expressed concerns about social and environmental equity, others about the impact of large companies on the climate.
Allderdice junior Malcolm Kurtz is an avid hiker and bird watcher. “I’m really concerned about how species are being affected by climate change,” he said. Kurtz makes sense of climate work, while Ava DiGiacomo, a sophomore at North Allegheny High School, said the state of the world sometimes makes her helpless.
“This summer I’ve started spending a lot more time outside and there have been moments when I just sat there and thought, ‘This world is so beautiful and it’s getting ruined,'” she said. “And sometimes it feels like there’s nothing I personally can do that is really going to make a big difference. And that’s not so easy to deal with. “
But they create a community around climate protection so that they don’t have to do it alone. On the evening they gathered in early October, some had just taken part in a climate march, and the group had organized a cycling event called Pedal-Topia.
Rebecca Carter, a junior at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, values the community they create. “Things like pedal topia, where we can come together and do something in the great outdoors as a group of activists, can be very helpful and cathartic,” she said.
Need for climate-conscious therapists
Dr. Elizabeth Haase, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s climate committee, believes students like this are on the right track. Fear, sadness and longing for what has been lost in the environment and concerns about the future of climate change are becoming omnipresent, according to Haase.
She belongs to a growing group of psychiatrists who advocate greater climate awareness among counselors. Haase is also on the steering committee of the growing climate-psychiatry alliance. “I think in five years we went from a band of seven to eight people to 240 members,” she said. The group has a directory of climate-conscious mental health professionals.
Treating climate anxiety is not the same as clinical anxiety disorders, according to Haase. “It’s a different animal, a different reaction when faced with a real problem,” she said.
She likened it to treating someone with claustrophobia. You would encourage that person to face their fear and spend time indoors, like on a subway.
“That’s not an appropriate reaction if the subway car is on fire, is it?” Asked Haase. “The subway is on fire. You don’t want to sit there and let your fear wash over you. You want to start doing things. “
When her patients raise concerns about natural disasters, climate change, and ecological collapse, she advises them to find ways to speak to their family and friends about it, and also to take action – join a climate group, write to their local congressman, or bag photos, and important ones Things in an emergency backpack.
“Even when you do something like that, you get a greater sense of control and it creates a safer space to hang out in if something bad happens,” said Haase.
A call to therapists to train others
Dr. Gary Belkin, a former New York City deputy health commissioner and founder of the Billion Minds Institute, which focuses on the social aspects of climate change, wants the mental health community to act quickly.
He already sees more need for mental health than there are available therapists, and climate change – the heat, droughts, and forest fires, and the general background stress they cause – will make this worse.
“We have to get really good at rethinking how we can reach a lot of people on this spectrum. And the only way to do that is by engaging the communities to participate, ”Belkin said.
Belkin led a program in New York that trained mental health professionals in daycare, churches, and programs for youth at risk, places he calls the mental health frontline.
“We have trained these employees to screen for distress and illness as well as basic counseling skills,” he said. “We have to develop things so that you don’t have to look for care or support. You trip over it. And that is exactly what we have to strive for. “
Efforts to expand climate protection in Pittsburgh begin
Walter Lewis, CEO of Homewood Children’s Village in Pittsburgh, said several years ago that he had not linked climate change to the mental health of his organization’s customers. That is starting to change.
A frontline group in Pittsburgh is starting to grapple with climate change and mental health: the Homewood Children’s Village. According to the nonprofit’s CEO Walter Lewis, it has six advocates who keep in touch with 300 members, including more than 100 families. They do regular research on education, business, nutrition, and health, including mental health.
“Probably three or four years ago it would never have crossed my mind to think about some of the types of trauma and psychological effects of climate change,” he said.
Disadvantaged communities like Homewood are likely to have a greater climate impact than their wealthier neighbors. Lewis now sees the high rate of basement flooding and asthma among children in the neighborhood as potentially climate-related. Even if his advocates aren’t mental health professionals, Lewis says he can raise awareness of how traumatic such incidents can be to their clients.
“People are more empathetic now to know that ‘Hey, we just had a heat wave, these are some things you might want to think about when talking to your families or the kids you work with,'” he said .
A new approach: community-based therapy
Dr. Kenneth Thompson and his daughter Alice Thompson, pictured in Pittsburgh, are bringing a Brazil-based community therapy technique to the United States, starting in Pittsburgh.
As the number of people reporting climate change-related anxiety and stress increases, others in Pittsburgh are looking to expand the mental health care available.
Dr. Ken Thompson, a community psychiatrist at Squirrel Hill Medical Center in Pittsburgh, and his daughter Alice Thompson, a fourth year medical student, are working to bring Collaborative Integrated Community Therapy to the United States through their Visible Hands.
Currently, their free sessions are held online twice a week.
A trained moderator recently welcomed more than a dozen attendees to an online Tuesday evening session utilizing a technique practiced in Brazil for 27 years, bringing personal groups of up to 200 people together to share their experiences, learn from each other and after and act upon problems in their families and neighborhoods.
“The goal of this method is to help people express themselves and have some kind of emotional competence to talk about their feelings and to help people develop a sense of empathy for one another,” explained Ken Thompson.
Facilitators are trained over months, it doesn’t take years like psychiatrists. There are now around 40,000 moderators in Brazil and elsewhere, and the Thompsons are starting to train moderators in the United States
“It will really help to have a safe space that will last over time, especially as climate change progresses,” said Alice Thompson. “It will allow people to connect not only across their trauma, but also to the outside world so that they can support each other in other ways.”
Her father continued, “It’s going to be a really strong glue, and I feel like we need a lot of glue in this society … to hold us together,” he said.
In our polarized society, efforts like this are beginning to help more people learn again, to speak to others, to see their common humanity and, hopefully, to reweave part of the torn community. Because if the climate worsens, people will need each other.
This part 2 of a 5-part series from our partner The Allegheny Front.