If it wasn't heartbreaking enough that the oil spill is fouling our nation's waters and coasts, there is yet another toll -- the suffering from afar as the oil spill fouls our nation's psyche. Never before, and I have been a psychiatrist for more than 20 years, have I seen a phenomenon poison people psychologically the way this ghastly oil spill has.
Under ordinary circumstances our darkest and most sinister thoughts are buried deep in our unconscious. But troubling outside events can remind us of what is buried -- "awakening" the nightmarish thoughts and allowing them to spill into our conscious awareness. So it is that the oil spill, with its disturbing themes and images - (in Greek mythology darkness and death are father and son) -- choking off life, violating beauty, unresponsive to protests, rage, our efforts to stop it -- is so much like the force of death itself. Some of us can handle the primitive thoughts that escape after such a throttling from real life events, but not everyone can. For some, the experience coalesces into crippling personal feelings of fear and defeat.
In a chain of associations starting with the spill, last week one patient of mine talked, for the first time, of various methods he would consider using to kill himself.
Eight days ago a respected and life long environmentalist and colleague of mine, committed suicide. Suicides are complicated, but we are sentient beings -- events affect us. I can no more rule out the oil spill -- on top of other conditions no doubt -- as a potential final trigger than I would automatically rule out illness, financial problems or relationship issues.
Two personal experiences don't make a trend. But ecoanxiety is real.
The psychological impacts of the climate crisis were discussed at a conference held in Washington DC last year. The conclusion was unequivocal: the consequences of climate change will exact a grievous toll on our mental health. From the floods, extinctions, fires, shortages, heat waves and all the rest -- will come deepening anxiety, despair, guilt, fury at this generation and those in charge, as well as real threats to our national security by people whose rallying cry includes describing our carbon emissions as an international act of aggression. The group making the predictions included a Noble Prize winner and expert on biodiversity, a four star General, a renowned bioethicist, the head of the American Psychological Association, authorities on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the founder of Anxiety Disorders Association of America, a prominent climate scientist and other environmental and mental health experts.
One of the questions asked was, "How do we get people to listen?
We in the climate community agonize about messaging -- "Maybe we are too gloomy...the public has Apocalypse Fatigue...we have to make it look fun to do the right thing..."
But not always matching the words with the intensity of our alarm can feel like we are only chatting or trying to jolly people into getting off the track of the train that is clearly bearing down on us.
And other messages aren't sweetened to disguise dangers -- we don't hear people saying, for example, that it's OK to drink and drive -- "Hey -- be optimistic -- you might get there safely". We warn with images of horrific accidents and present traumatized survivors to lecture. And if you are a teenager or a guilty driver you will be exposed to this repeatedly. Could never letting up be the solution?
And aren't we furious when we find out that people like the engineers at the Deepwater Horizon oilrig, have downplayed the dangers?
The U.S. Senate in the next few weeks will take up the debate about a climate bill that will likely determine just how exposed Mother Nature and our own psyches will be to all the environmental provocations and years of dithering. Our elected officials need to know that, we the people, are becoming emotionally raw at all the posturing.
And to all those officials "outraged" at BP -- and jabbing their fingers in the air on television - we in our living rooms want to know -- What are you personally doing in your home and offices to reduce your energy needs? How many of you, up there on Capitol Hill -- just for example -- are wearing suits in this 90 degree Washington DC heat? Y'all wouldn't be cranking up the air conditioners so you don't get too hot now would you? Not too many air conditioners running on solar in these parts.
Then there are the rest of us. We care, but we need to have a good look in the mirror to examine our anguish. Have we taken all the steps we can to reduce our energy use?
It may make us feel good to go after the villains in this story.
But it would make us feel even better to work on making new heroes.
To help wildlife hurt by the oil spill log on to: http://www.homeatnwf.org
Lise Van Susteren, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice in Washington D.C. She is member of the Board of Directors of the National Wildlife Federation and serves on the Advisory Board of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.
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