Mental Challenges

The Budding Field of Climate-Aware Therapy Must Be Decolonized To Serve BIPOC Communities

Britt Wray, PhD

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Photo: Stocksy/Ivan Gener; Art: W+G Creative

“I am just so sad. It’s draining, emotionally, to try to speak about my fears and concerns in my circle of loving friends and family,” began a note that a woman left me after completing one of my climate anxiety workshops. (I’m a science writer and researcher who specializes in what environmental change does to mental and emotional health.) “I feel like an imposition. I feel distant from others. Apart. Alone,” she wrote.

But the reality is, that woman is far from alone. As scientific reports continue to paint a picture of a grim ecological future, and the political establishment continues to fail to safeguard our future climate, those who are paying attention are increasingly scared, and suffering for it.

The worsening climate emergency has led to a spike in climate anxiety or “eco-anxiety,” which the American Psychological Association defines as the “chronic fear of environmental doom.” This manifests as a complicated mix of emotions that can include existential fear, grief, shame, guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, and even nihilism. Young people are particularly susceptible to its blows. A 2020 survey conducted by OnePoll revealed that 78 percent of Gen Zers in the U.S. do not plan on having kids because of climate change, while 71 percent of millennials in the U.S. say that climate change has negatively affected their mental health.

Thankfully, in recent years, a field of “climate-aware” therapists has emerged to help those living with dark environmental emotions understand that there is nothing pathological about their pain, as well as transform it into something more tolerable and meaningful. They are professionally assembled in organizations like The Climate Psychology Alliances of the United Kingdom and North America, as well as The Climate Psychiatry Alliance. Common issues they may help a client work through include unbearable amounts of uncertainty around how life-threatening climate change will become, a loss of faith in leadership and the world order, and feeling unable to make any meaningful difference in the face of such daunting environmental problems.

My forthcoming book, Generation Dread, is about the link between environmental degradation and deteriorating mental health, as well as what to do to improve this situation. While researching it, I interviewed more than a dozen climate-aware mental health-care providers in places like the UK, the U.S., and Canada. Many of them told me that their typical client tends to be the white, middle-class, university-educated environmentalist. However, compared to these rather enfranchised clients, climate change threatens BIPOC communities in a far outsized way. It would seem that the most vulnerable people face significant barriers to this kind of therapy at best, or are being outright neglected at worst.

The inherent racism of climate change—and barriers to accessing climate-aware therapy

Environmental injustice has always been organized along racial divides. Minority communities are more likely to be physically hotter than white communities because of little to no neighborhood green spaces in what’s called the “heat island effect.” And while all mothers who are exposed to heatwaves and air pollution are more likely to have underweight, premature, or stillborn babies, Black and Latinx moms are disproportionately harmed by these trends. BIPOC communities are also more likely to live in polluted areas. One example is “Cancer Alley”—which was recently renamed “Death Alley”—in Louisiana, where more than 200 petrochemical industries emit chemicals into majority-Black communities living along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Residents of “Death Alley” face high death rates from cancer, respiratory, and autoimmune diseases.

When it comes to being stressed about climate change and environmental degradation, polls show that communities of color are highly concerned, for good reason. Yet many climate-aware therapists say they aren’t serving many clientele of color, particularly those who are also low-income.

The influences on this are manifold, complex, and culturally specific. For example, research has shown that there are high levels of stigma around mental health issues, fears of discriminatory repercussions from seeking mental health care, as well as a general mistrust of the mental health system among Black Americans—which should come as no surprise considering the historic mistreatment this community has faced from the health-care profession. Meanwhile, some BIPOC folks may find more solace and strength by turning to spirituality instead of therapy, as this study of older Black Americans’ cultural coping strategies described. Plus, mental health care also carries a high cost and is rarely covered by insurance, making it difficult for low-income people of any race or ethnicity to obtain. There is a lot in the mix, but climate-aware therapy, like a lot of therapy, is also simply very white.

What climate-aware therapists need to do to decolonize their practices

To understand what the budding field of climate-aware therapy can do to make itself more accessible and inclusive to members of BIPOC communities, I spoke with Jennifer Mullan, PsyD, a clinical therapist in New Jersey and the founder of Decolonizing Therapy. “The mental health industrial complex, the way that it is set up, continues to serve the elite, or at least the middle class white person,” she says. That’s why she practices decolonizing therapy, meaning that she uses alternatives to the mainstream mental health model in order to further emotional wellness on a larger collective scale for communities of color.

Dr. Mullan says that decolonizing therapists actively work towards being truly accessible to more people (specifically BIPOC) through a variety of techniques. First, they check their privilege by looking at their own heritage, Dr. Mullan says—“our ancestral tree, our own points of privilege and oppression, and even trauma timelines.” However, the obliviousness to one’s own power, as well as internalized oppression, that is so prevalent in white supremacy culture can cause BIPOC more harm. Therefore, she suggests working “in a collective of individuals who are not only focused on therapy and clinical matters, but people providing a container to dismantle the oppressor within.” Collaborating with other therapists who have the same goal creates accountability and provides a rich space for self-reflection, educational discussions, and community organizing.

Decolonizing therapists also question what expertise itself looks like. “I have found it essential to the decolonization process for mental health workers to begin to become comfortable with ambiguity and finding ‘expertise’ in non-academic arenas, such as in activists, community liaisons, peer support, and other types of labor,” Dr. Mullan says.

The mission to get comfortable with being uncomfortable appears in all aspects of decolonizing therapy, and includes stepping outside of the therapy room and doing group therapy in community centers, or offering one-on-one therapy at low cost to low-income clients. This also means being able to talk about religion, spirituality, or any other culturally-specific anchor that is important for their client—topics a therapist might traditionally try to avoid out of a sense of awkwardness or being out-of-depth.

Dr. Mullan says it’s also crucial for therapists to understand the ramifications of emotional colonization, meaning how physical acts of oppression can affect one’s spirit and psyche. “The reality is that the emotional impacts of oppression have been passed down, soaked into our very bloodstreams, and this affects how many historically marginalized people feel about ourselves,” she says. “This is not to be dismissed as low self-esteem, or what access people have to resources, and honoring this can help decolonize.”

Decolonizing therapists also embrace the power of ancestors and spirit for healing, Dr. Mullan says. “The connection then is, how did my people survive? How did our ancestors get through those dark times? That’s where spirit comes in. They had to believe in something, and they were strong and they fought back. That is therapy, too.”

There are also unconscious forces at play that are important to address. Climate-aware psychotherapist Caroline Hickman says therapists should not forget to go under the surface, to look more analytically at unconscious processes and explore the intersections and parallels between the harms of racism and those of climate change. “‘Othering’ nature, just as white people can ‘other’ people of color, allows us to dismiss their voice and treat them as ‘less than,’ just as we dismiss the suffering of other species and Indigenous peoples and the forests and rivers, the Earth itself,” she says. The therapist’s goal in this case is to help people examine their unconscious defenses, and make connections between their failure to act on any injustice, including racism, and the climate and biodiversity crisis.

When zoomed out to see its various factions, climate-aware therapy is clearly not yet so established that it deserves to be dismissed as not serving the most vulnerable communities. To the contrary, it is extremely well-positioned to incorporate these kinds of decolonizing approaches to better serve front-line communities that are the most vulnerable to climate change. Let’s hope it develops further as a lever for justice in our careening planetary predicament.

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