As the world watches in horror the death and destruction that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate concerns have also come to the fore. Not just concerns about Putin’s implicit threat to use nuclear weapons, but the role that fossil fuels – especially natural gas, more accurately called methane – have played in giving Russia so much influence in Europe’s energy sector. A phenomenon called “climate anxiety” or “climate grief” has come out of the closet, as more people around the world – especially, but not exclusively, young people – attempt to come to grips with what the climate crisis means for them personally in their own lives.
Dr. Lise Van Susteren is a practicing psychiatrist in Washington, D.C., who specializes in forensic psychiatry, often serving as an expert witness in court cases. She’s co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance and serves on the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
In 2011, Dr. Van Susteren co-authored, “The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the U.S. – Why the U.S. Mental Health System Is Not Prepared.” Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Dr. Van Susteren, who discusses the need to equip therapists to address the climate grief and anger of individuals who come to them for help, as well as the broader political implications.
LISE VAN SUSTEREN: I could go to a dinner party and shut it down it minutes — and would, when I would bring up climate issues. People froze and had nothing to say. Now, that’s changed.
But I didn’t have patients until a few years ago when people started calling me, looking for help, and that’s when, as a joint project of the two groups that I co-founded, we initiated the Climate Aware Therapists Directory, and it was so that people who were suffering from these very powerful feelings about climate could get some help, because many of the people calling me would say, when I would suggest they get help locally – this was before we were doing remote tele-psychiatry during the pandemic — and they would say they would go to a therapist and the therapist would suggest they were really worried about some personal issue, some family or work-related or some unresolved childhood experience – and would elbow aside the concern about climate.
We determined that we would put a directory together and work to train the members so that they could adequately respond to people who were looking for help, and indeed, speak about the issue and perhaps get colleagues on board and do other pro-social activities around climate.
And that’s really another thing I’d like to underscore, is how important it is to be with a group, because if you really want a final product that works, I think the collective intelligence of the various differences among us is what creates a really good product in the end. There’s that saying, If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others, and I have certainly found that to be the case.
MELINDA TUHUS: I remember reading an article where you were talking about being a therapist for young people around climate issues. Do you see a lot of young people with climate grief or climate rage?
LISE VAN SUSTEREN: Well, I don’t see a lot of young people specifically for therapy. I am the expert witness in a number of cases of young people suing their governments. I am the expert witness in the psychological damages to the 21 plaintiffs in the Juliana case. Some of you may remember the Juliana case, and it may be coming up again against the federal government for inaction on climate.
So in my past experience as a psychologic profiler, what I did was the psychological evaluations of the young people, and heard first-hand, and was able to find better because that’s the work that I’m trained and experienced at doing, of the nature of their emotional response to what scientists are telling us and what science shows what awaits us.
And it was a powerful experience; I’ll never be the same. It was a searing experience for me to try to find just the right words, not to overstate, but to reasonably and memorably describe the struggle and suffering of children, young people, faced with what’s coming.
You know, when you talk about what you foresee, sometimes it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the last thing I want to do is have kids hear some of my fears and have them get in the way of their own resilience. And I’m also the expert witness in another case – Held v Montana – where young people are suing the government of Montana on constitutional grounds as well. And a new case, I am the expert witness in a case of young people who have brought their petition before the European Court of Human Rights – we hope it will be expected. So those are the legal issues that I’m involved with. Forensic – that’s where the forensic part comes in handy.
MELINDA TUHUS: You know, I always think about Greta Thunberg, who got so depressed about the climate crisis and that her family was just carrying on like nothing was wrong that she stopped eating and permanently stunted her growth. Then of course, she became active and really changed the world. How important do you think it is for people to recognize and deal with their climate anxiety or grief or anger, or might it be better to just power through it, which it seems a lot of climate activists try to do?
LISE VAN SUSTEREN: We can be deeply anxious about an issue and so frightened by it that we tend to avoid it, but once we begin to have the resolve, or the help, in tackling that problem, then our anxiety turns into action. And that’s really what we want to do, is go from being aware of the problem, and this is a messaging tip – say it like it is when we talk to people. But then offer immediate actions they can take to reduce their anxiety.
For more information, visit Dr. Lise Van Susteren’s website at lisevansusteren.