People often enter therapy with anxiety or depression tied to fears of the personally catastrophic—of losing jobs, of having no friends. The process of therapy, Andrew Bryant of North Seattle Therapy and Counseling says, is to realize these concerns may be exaggerated, to “bring things down to earth.” But when clients visit Bryant to lament the fate of Earth itself, he can’t take the same approach. “With climate change,” Bryant says, “a lot of these fears are basically realistic.”
On Monday, a United Nations report offered further confirmation of global warming’s chilling consequences. Human reliance on greenhouse gases has “unequivocally” caused the climate to heat up at a rate unseen in at least 2,000 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; the past decade is likely the hottest in 125,000 years, with carbon dioxide levels in 2019 higher than at any point in the last two million years. As a result, climate and weather extremes (see: heat waves) have increased, with future tipping points threatening even more damage. While the report highlights that human behavior can still prevent the worst of these changes, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the findings a “code red for humanity.”
Those paying attention didn’t need one. As Bryant says, the IPCC's assessment isn't particularly revelatory. It's just a detailed reinforcement of the harsh environmental truths that have already saddled people with depression, anxiety, grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder, per the American Psychiatric Association. And it’s the same ominous information that has turned Bryant’s Greenlake practice into a basecamp for those seeking to understand the relationship between their mental health and climate change.
A handful of years ago, some clients started bringing up global warming during sessions with Bryant. They described how they were coping with prolonged smoke seasons in Seattle. They wondered whether they should have children. “I realized I wasn't particularly prepared for working with these concerns,” Bryant says, “because they're not usually addressed in training programs for therapists. It’s not usually discussed.”
So he decided to do his own digging. He gathered resources from various fields—psychology, the social sciences—on how humans were processing information about the planet’s future. In the spring of 2019, he created a website to catalog his findings.
His initial goal with Climate and Mind was to save others some research time. Then the inquiries started to roll in. From Houston, from Taiwan, from all over the world. People wanted referrals to climate therapists. But there weren’t many “climate-aware” therapists out there, Bryant says. Today, his site links to a mapping tool that flags just over 90 in the U.S. who’ve “thought through their own feelings and process about environmental issues, and have found a way to work with clients in a way that's supportive and not dismissive.”
In his own work, Bryant sees people who feel powerless to combat climate change, a complex, slow-motion crisis that raises existential questions about individual responsibility and authority. He doesn’t try to reverse these sentiments; they’re natural, he says. Instead the therapist aims to pinpoint them. Anger has set in for many young people who've learned about the failures of older generations to act. Sadness, grief, and depression accompany concerns about the future of loved ones and communities most vulnerable to the disasters to come. Avoiding or withdrawing from these fears about climate change is common, but Bryant finds it counterproductive. “In therapy, it's really important to validate people's fears. Not to stay there, and not to get stuck in the fears,” he says, “but to just recognize that this is a reasonable thing to be worried about, especially because not a lot of people are talking about it. A lot of people feel alone and isolated in these feelings.” From there, they can find groups and take measures “that will both address the situation in a small way and also help them feel more engaged and more of a sense of purpose.”
Bryant underscores the systemic failures that underlie and exacerbate climate change. Growing up as a Pacific Northwest nature lover in the 1980s, he read all the things about little actions—say, turning newspaper into mulch—that could help save the planet. He thought of the looming crisis as one attributable to individual behavior back then. In adulthood, he’s come to know it as a much broader problem. “The actual focus on individual actions was really a distraction from the bigger picture: how the consumption of oil and gas has been kind of rammed down our throats for decades, and we don't have much option to live in a different way.”
Still, by encouraging clients to pursue something that feels “meaningful and effective” to them, Bryant attempts to break down a dichotomy—personal action versus systemic change—that's become yet another source of Twitter polarization. These debates can be overwhelming, a distraction even. “A lot of people come into therapy feeling guilty about things. If it's not about climate change, they feel guilty about their consumption, about existing in this world and having to consume resources. And if we focus too much on that, it tends to make people feel guilty and powerless.”
Bryant usually sees an uptick in climate therapy requests, or mentions of environmental doom during sessions, when smoke arrives in Seattle. Waking up to a neighborhood shrouded in a sort of ashy smog tends to ignite concerns about one’s short and long-term safety. But even as Bryant welcomes this introspection, he encourages people to consider those on the front lines of climate change, who will endure more extreme weather events that precipitate additional trauma, depression, and displacement. Often they'll have the least resources and power at their disposal, and the least opportunity to seek help. In that awareness, amid all the uncertainty, there is clarity.