Polly Higgins, UK criminal lawyer and eco-campaigner, who died last year having played a seminal role in the international campaign for a law of ecocide, famously declared, ‘The Earth needs a lawyer.’1

Does it also need a psychotherapist? Growing numbers in the counselling and psychotherapy profession might say yes.

The scientific evidence for catastrophic climate change has become irrefutable with the publication in 2018 and 2019 of the series of reports from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) setting out the impact of rising temperatures on the Earth’s ecosystem.2 According to the IPCC, we have less than 10 years to reverse the rise in global temperature and keep it below the critical tipping point of 1.5oC. Other reports have set out the stark reality of the effects of climate change on the Earth’s ecosystem and all living species. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services declared in a 2019 report that:3 ‘The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.’

In the UK, Extinction Rebellion (XR) brought parts of London to a halt in April and October last year. The international school strikes inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg gave children an outlet for their voices to be heard. Counsellors and psychotherapists have of course been involved in these actions, individually and collectively. The Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), founded in 2012,4 was set up to provide a central forum for concerned psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors to organise and take action. A fledgling Climate Coaching Alliance5 has recently been launched, to do the same for coaches. Counsellors and psychotherapists are no less affected by what is happening to our ecosystem. But is climate change something the profession needs to take on board?

Why psychotherapists?

When researching this article, I asked several psychotherapist, counsellor and coach climate activists why they think they as professionals (and by extension, their professional associations) need to be active around climate change. The answers were broadly ‘Because we are all human and we are all affected’ and ‘We have specific skills that are and will be essential’. These skills are needed to inform efforts to change public attitudes and behaviours, hold and transform the grief and fear that is already manifesting in consulting rooms, and deal with the repercussions of global warming – the psychological impacts of natural disasters, floods, fires like those raging in Australia and the Amazon rainforest and the potential breakdown of our social and civil structures.

Says executive coach, counsellor, BACP Fellow and founding former Chair of the BACP Coaching division Linda Aspey: ‘I’m exploring in the coaching and coach-therapist profession what it might mean to “coach with the Earth in mind”. What is our role in creating awareness and preparedness in our clients and how well are we coaches personally equipped to have conversations we never expected to have? Counsellors and coaches are naturally well trained in dealing with emotions, but we have never been involved in anything as significant and existential as this.’

Aspey argues that coaching as a whole needs a transformation of focus: from self to system, individual to community and growth to restoration. ‘Many coaches do work systemically but there are also many working only with the client in the room. I believe there is a place for us to be more educative – to work with communities and systems, to use our skills to raise awareness by creating welcoming spaces where people can talk together. Some coaches say that their role is to help people be the “best version of themselves”. I think we have got to the stage where we need to think much more deeply about how we co-create the best version of the world we inhabit.’

Rosemary Randall is an active member of the CPA and a psychoanalytically trained psychotherapist in Cambridge. ‘I think there is a particular need for psychotherapeutic understanding at the moment,’ she says. ‘A lot of people who are coming into climate action and politics are emerging from states of disavowal and what characterises that position is that, for good, defensive reasons, you have tricked yourself into thinking there is nothing that needs to be done. With that realisation comes huge shame and guilt and coming through that is extremely painful. As well, I think the levels of fear are much higher these days. Therapists have the skills to hold the space for people who are struggling with how to be with this knowledge and to help them change that into being active and more effective in what they do.’

Sally Weintrobe, founding member of the CPA and Chair of the International Psychoanalytical Association’s Committee on Climate Change, believes every mental health profession needs to step up to the plate. ‘Climate denial isn’t static. The situation is getting worse and I think it is becoming harder for people to look at it and that is where we come in. Our role isn’t so much to do with working through these problems with individuals in the consulting room. I think it’s more public – it’s taking our understanding from the consulting room into the wider world. People are feeling overwhelmed, which the media tend to pathologise as climate anxiety, but climate anxiety is a healthy response. Psychotherapists are finding a way to describe these psychic processes in a language that people can understand and that can help them work through grief and fear.’

Weintrobe has published extensively on climate change and is currently working on a new book on the psychological roots of the climate crisis. She argues that neoliberalism has boosted a sense of exceptionalism and seeded the bubble of denial around climate change. ‘I think one of the reasons why people are in such denial is because there is a culture of un-care,’ she says. ‘It’s a deliberate political reframing, a reversal from the culture of care that broadly followed World War II, when the NHS was introduced. A culture of care provides a framework that helps people to link with each other and get in contact with their caring selves. Neoliberalism has shattered that sense of social responsibility with its monetisation and commodification of everything. We have become entitled consumers.’

That is why we need an international law of ecocide, she argues: ‘It would make it clear to governments and corporations that it is illegal to destroy our life-support systems and they will be held to account. It would bring a sense of proportionality to the whole thing. At the moment there is a lot of emphasis on what the individual needs to do, which can lead to paralysing guilt. A law brings proportionality. Yes, we are all responsible for what is happening, but we are not all equally responsible.’

Psy climate activism

Says Aspey: ‘The most effective thing anyone can do is to join a movement. Working alone won’t make the difference. That’s why I joined Extinction Rebellion, as a trainer and speaker. We need to be putting pressure on governments and law-makers to build systems and enforce policies that make it possible for people to make better choices to less harmful ways of living – that’s the key to real change.’

Counsellors who, like Aspey, have joined XR are finding a natural home within its ‘regenerative culture’ – its belief that humankind cannot continue to use up the Earth’s resources without putting back more than it takes. So, too, XR activists cannot be expected to campaign effectively unless they are held within a framework of collective care and support and take time out to regroup and regenerate their resources. Self-care, care for each other and having fun are as much a part of XR’s ‘rebellions’ as protest and non-violent resistance.

Bernadette McGregor is an integrative counsellor based in east London. She took part in the April 2019 rebellion in London and is a member of the Hackney XR wellbeing group. Her role in the April action was supportive – bringing food, drinks and blankets to people who were taking non-violent direct action, and being a ‘listener’. As a practising counsellor, she feels she can’t risk getting arrested. ‘XR is a collective experience. When you are on your own with emotions and fear around climate change, it can be overwhelming. You can feel powerless. Being part of the XR community allows us to share these feelings. The deep connection makes it easier – it gives you hope that by coming together we can change the system.’

Randall has, with fellow CPA executive member Paul Hoggett, researched how climate-change activists become politicised: from epiphany, when the person realises the terrifying reality of climate change, through ‘immersion’, when they plunge into researching the facts and talking to others with shared concerns, and then action at whatever level is possible for them. ‘With climate change, the anxiety comes from feeling there is nothing you can do. You are at that point when the fight or flight mechanism kicks in, and if you can’t act on your fear, it provokes huge anxiety. Action brings relief and also an outlet for the anger,’ she says. The active phase may then lead to burnout but, ideally, people will work through this to arrive at a state of ‘more sustainable activism’.

XR’s regenerative culture is designed to support activists through that journey. Debbie Winton is a trainee psychotherapist and XR’s External Co-ordinator of Regenerative Culture UK. ‘Our focus is on care – self-care, people care and Earth care,’ she says. The XR website explains regenerative culture as ‘a framework based on natural principles allows each of us to develop our own approach to practising a regenerative way of being. At its simplest this means putting a little bit more in than we take out’.6 It is as simple as instituting emotional check-ins at local group meetings where people can talk about how they feel and ensuring XR meetings are spaces where everyone’s voice is heard and given equal consideration. It also powers the network of emotional and psychological support across XR, including arrestee welfare support, rebel-to-rebel helplines and buddy systems in local groups and free access for burned-out activists to its national Trained Emotional Support Network of volunteer psychologists, counsellors and a wide range of healers and therapists.

Central is its Regenerative Action Cycle,7 which follows the natural cycles of nature:

  • Take care of ourselves and connect with our anchors as we return home (afternoon/late summer)
  • Celebrate and share stories in small gatherings (sunset/autumn)
  • Accept, debrief, feedback and honour the emotions raised by our actions (dusk/end of autumn)
  • Rest, reflect and dream new visions (midnight/midwinter)
  • With gratitude, come together again to develop new ideas and set new intentions (first light/beginning of spring).

‘What helps me is that sense of community with like-minded people,’ says Winton. ‘There’s a collective sense of joy in XR rebellions that you rarely find in any other social context – expect maybe football matches.’

Lizzie Cambray, a counselling psychologist and mindfulness trainer in the south-west, also became involved in XR in April 2019. ‘Regenerative culture is where I see my skills being most useful,’ she says. ‘For me, it’s irresponsible to take the risk of getting arrested when I have a caseload of people waiting to see me next week.’ She facilitates small, semi-structured groups for activists in her area to meet and talk about their fears, anger, grief, how their involvement in XR is affecting their family and other relationships and how they manage to balance personal priorities such as family and work, so the fabric of their own lives isn’t destroyed. ‘Facilitating these groups takes skill and, while they are not intended as formal therapy, many people do find them therapeutic, and I think it is where we have something to offer,’ she says.

Powering change

Basic counselling skills are also evident in the workshops called ‘Taking the heat out of talking about climate change’ that the CPA has developed. These are aimed at helping people have what Hoggett, who is Professor Emeritus of Social Policy at the University of the West of England and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, calls ‘everyday conversations with friends, family and colleagues who are ambivalent about climate change’. They are ‘what we all do every day as psychotherapists with clients who come to us desperately wanting to change but also wanting things to remain the same,’ he says. ‘Primarily, you are not saying a great deal – they lead, and you follow. Often what you are witnessing is a conversation going on inside their head, but they are having it out loud and you are interjecting.’

Like the counsellor, the activist is also using what Hoggett calls ‘deep listening skills’ – listening without judgment, with an attitude of respect and, above all, compassion, and using open-ended questions or reflecting back what the other person has said to prompt them when they get stuck. The listener notes how they use metaphor and imagery and stories, listens to their silences, observes their gestures and how they present, and looks for inconsistencies and contradictions. These can often be a point at which to find a way through the person’s resistance, he says; it’s a bit like judo – you find ways around the opposing force, rather than confronting it head-on. Randall facilitates similar small group workshops locally to help people find ways to open up discussions about climate change with other people – friends, family, colleagues, employers. ‘The workshops are based on therapeutic understandings of how you approach people who are very defended,’ Randall says. ‘Each generation of activists thinks they just need to tell the truth and tell it louder, but people are just as likely to shoot the messenger as listen.’

The CPA also runs ‘Through the door’ workshops, developed by CPA member Chris Robertson, where counsellors and psy-practitioners can explore how to apply their psychotherapeutic skills outside the confines and safety of the consulting room. ‘We need to manage the absence of our usual authority and the vulnerability that comes from letting go of it’ when ‘boundaries and permissions are ambiguous, interventions may be brief and participants may have little understanding of therapeutic norms,’ the CPA says on its website.8 The workshops are designed to provide an open, ‘safe-enough’ space to explore ways of responding to and working with the concerns of ordinary folk in community settings.

This is the kind of work that psychotherapist and CPA Executive Lead for Outreach Caroline Hickman is doing with young people, such as the Young Climate Alliance in Bath. ‘I have learned to do psychotherapy differently,’ Hickman says. ‘When a client comes to talk to me about their marriage problems, I am not vulnerable in the way that I am vulnerable when it comes to climate change. I still have a traditional practice where clients come to see me one to one, and we talk about their problems with their work or their marriage, say, but alongside I go out and offer my skills in order to be of service to the group I am working with. I offer what is wanted as it is revealed to me. I have had to learn to navigate a world where there is much less certainty. I am not the expert. So I have to be able to hold my pain as well as theirs in a liminal space and trust I can still be therapeutically supportive.’

So she might find herself sitting to one side as the young people discuss their anger, say, that adults have bequeathed them this poisoned legacy, but they will then ask her for information or to intercede with their teachers or parents, who may be focused on exam results when the young people fear they won’t have a future in which A grades matter at all.

Grief and denial

But psychotherapists and counsellors have to admit to themselves that they too are psychologically affected; they too have to work through their terror, grief and disavowal if they are to be of service to others. ‘If psychotherapists want to help activists, they have to see this as a continuum of activism. They can’t take the position of uninvolved helper, because it affects all of us; we are not detached observers,’ says Cambray: ‘If you really want to help people, you need to feel it yourself.’

Hoggett argues that despair and depression are a necessary fuel for action. ‘What happens when we think about climate change is that part of us hears what people are saying about the implications and part of us can’t believe it will actually come to pass, so we just don’t think about it; we close off. Or we split thoughts from feeling; we allow ourselves to think the thoughts but not to feel the feelings that should go with it. So we are left with the facts but not the emotional response that would make us do something about it. That is what emotions do – they fuel our actions in a way that simply intellectually knowing doesn’t, because facts don’t disturb. So you have to stay with that disturbance and that is the difficult thing – the ability to park it on one side and get on with what you do. That is what activists and scientists can do, as our survey showed. It’s not denial or disavowal; it’s not lying. It actually frees you to act.’

Randall uses William Worden’s ‘tasks of grief’ model as a framework for the process: accept the loss, acknowledge the pain of the loss, adjust to a new environment and reinvest in the reality of a new life. Waking up to the reality of climate change is very similar to bereavement, she argues, only with a death, there is a set of rituals to follow, rules of behaviour to guide others and public acknowledgement of your status as bereaved. ‘But if you are facing grief about climate change, you are among people who are as distressed as you, or people who can’t understand why you are upset. And if you see a therapist who doesn’t get it, you are being injured again.’ It is a form of disenfranchised grief, she says.

Says Hickman: ‘It’s human nature to blame someone else, argue against it, say it’s not our fault and there’s nothing we can do. But such defences are lethal. We have to face up to our feelings of grief, loss, despair, rage and helplessness. I don’t want to step away from my despair; I want to transform it to enable communities to feel understood and take action themselves.’

She likens it to the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly. The caterpillar doesn’t simply grow wings inside the chrysalis, she says: its body dissolves into its constituent cells and then reforms and emerges as a different creature – a butterfly. But essential to the transformation is the struggle the butterfly makes to get out of the chrysalis – if you intervene and split the chrysalis to help it, its wings don’t unfurl and it cannot fly.

Catherine Jackson is Editor of Therapy Today.

Members and subscribers can listen to this article on the Therapy Today podcast

References

1. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9ErjSd8xu0
2. IPCC Report on Global Warming. Global warming of 1.5oC: special report. [Online.] IPCC; 2018. www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
3.IPBES. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. [Online.] IPBES; 2019.https://ipbes.net/global-assessment-report-biodiversity-ecosystem-services
4. www.climatepsychologyalliance.org
5. www.climatecoachingalliance.org
6. Extinction Rebellion. Wellbeing. [Online.] https://rebellion.earth/act-now/resources/wellbeing
7. Extinction Rebellion. Post-rebellion blues: a practical guide to coming down to earth. [Online.] 20 October, 2019. https://rebellion.earth/2019/10/20/post-rebellion-blues
8. CPA. Through the door: a therapeutic practice for the commons. [Online.] CPA. www.climatepsychologyalliance.org/~cpa/events/307-through-the-window