bob-doppeltThis month, APHA’s Year of Climate Change and Health is looking at mental health and climate change. Today’s guest blogger, Bob Doppelt, is coordinator of the International Transformational Resilience Coalition — a network of over 250 mental health professionals working to build widespread levels of personal and psycho-social resilience for the traumas and toxic stresses of climate change. Doppelt is also executive director of The Resource Innovation Group and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon, where he teaches systems thinking and global warming policy. He partnered with Washington, D.C., forensic psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren to offer APHA members a “Building Mental Wellness and Psychosocial Resilience for Climate Change” workshop earlier this month.

 

Many pundits have said that President Donald Trump’s anti-climate and environment actions won’t stop the shift to clean energy or the reduction of greenhouse gasses. That might be true, but his administration’s action will slow these processes, and there is precious little time left to cut emissions far enough to prevent uncontrollable climate change. This makes it even more imperative to quickly expand our response to the climate crisis and earnestly help people prepare for the traumas and toxic stresses generated by rising global temperatures.

Efforts to cut greenhouse gasses have focused primarily on increasing energy efficiency and switching from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. Efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change have mostly centered on hardening physical infrastructure and preparing ecological systems for hotter temperatures. Both mitigation and adaptation have largely concentrated on external physical factors, primarily through new or improved designs and technologies.

Missing from this response has been an equal focus on preparing humans for the personal mental health and psycho-social-spiritual impacts of a warming world and helping them develop the capacity to use climate adversities as transformational catalysts to learn, grow and increase personal, social and ecological well-being.

Fight, flight or freeze
Neuroscience has documented that when humans perceive a threat — whether it is physical danger from a speeding car or horrific storm, dealing with extreme heat, or a challenge to our self-esteem — neurochemicals are automatically released into the body to create a state of hyperarousal to prepare us to fight back, flee — or if it is overwhelming, freeze.

Usually, after a while, most people are able to calm themselves and release the hyperarousal. However, when people experience severe traumas, or persistent and overwhelming (or toxic) stresses, they can enter an ongoing state of hyperarousal that leads to a difficult time regulating their body, emotions and minds. Such stress is associated with the inevitable 1.5°C or higher rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels.

The effect of ongoing trauma and toxic stress can include mental health problems such as severe anxiety, depression, PTSD or possible suicide. Left unresolved, these psychological problems can become physical health problems such as cancer or heart disease.

Acute traumas or chronic toxic stresses also can cause people to adopt harmful coping behaviors such as drug, food or alcohol abuse and other actions that often lead to hopelessness. They can cause people to turn their distress outward toward their spouses or children, or to people who look, think or act differently, leading to family abuse, physical aggression, interpersonal violence, “us-vs-them” extremism and other psycho-social-spiritual maladies. When acute traumas and toxic stresses are intermixed, the impacts can be particularly harmful.

A vicious cycle
The acute traumas resulting from more frequent and extreme weather events — as well as chronic toxic stresses caused by the related breakdown of social support systems and cultures — are aggravating and increasing these adverse patterns. Left unaddressed, they will undermine the safety, health and well-being of individuals, families, organizations and entire communities. Fearful people often retreat into a self-protective survival mode that leaves them uninterested in external issues, such as cutting carbon emissions. Such adverse human reactions threaten our ability to reduce the climate crisis to manageable levels.

A major national preventative initiative is urgently needed to respond to these risks. The American Public Health Association is owed great thanks for its efforts in declaring June “Mental Health and Resilience Month” and making it possible for me to offer a workshop with Washington, D.C., psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren to its members at the American Psychological Association on June 12. Dr. Van Susteren and I are also supporting additional initiatives this month to highlight the need for a national personal and psycho-social-spiritual resilience-building initiative.

The national prevention initiative should include programs in schools, organizations and communities nationwide to build the capacity of adults and youth to respond constructively, rather than automatically reacting to traumas and toxic stresses with fear-based fight, flight or freeze actions. The national initiative should also seek to enhance the capacity of all adults and youth to use adversities of all types as transformational catalysts to learn, grow and increase personal, social and ecological well-being — a process in psychology called post-traumatic growth.

The International Transformational Resilience Coalition, or ITRC, was formed four years ago to highlight the urgent need and promote methods to launch preventative personal and psycho-social-spiritual resilience-building initiatives throughout the U.S. and worldwide. Through our research and work, we have determined that there are three pillars to community-level personal and psycho-social-spiritual resilience. More information about each pillar can be found on the ITRC website.

We encourage public health professionals to learn more about the three pillars. We also encourage everyone to become engaged in efforts to expand existing or launch new human resilience-building initiatives in your organization or community. The ITRC is eager to help, so please let us know how we might be of assistance.