The Current18:03Therapists target climate anxiety
As climate change raises temperatures and increases the impact of natural disasters around the world, some doctors are trying to find ways to tackle the distress impending environmental doom is wracking on people’s mental and physical health.
“I think one of the things about climate or eco-anxiety that we have to keep in mind is giving people a sense of agency, giving people a sense that they can do something about it,” said Dr. Melissa Lem, president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
Climate anxiety, also known as eco-anxiety, is the distress some people may feel about the effects of climate change.
Climate psychology consultant Leslie Davenport said most of the patients she sees with these cases are youth.
“High school, early college, early adulthood, this is a natural time developmentally when people are looking at ‘Where do I want to live and do I want to have a family? And what kind of work do I want to do?'” she said.
“It’s kind of a future-glancing time, and many youth are feeling like their future has sort of been hijacked.”
According to a 2021 study published in the health journal The Lancet, 84 per cent of 10,000 respondents aged 16 to 25 were at least moderately worried about climate change.
More than 45 per cent of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.
We are nowhere close to delivering the messaging and the action items that are required to protect the public from the threat of air pollution, fossil fuels and climate change.-Dr. Courtney Howard, ER physician
Dr. Courtney Howard is an ER physician in Yellowknife and the advocacy co-chair for the World Health Organization’s civil society working group on climate change and health. She said The Lancet’s framing of climate change as the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century” is appropriate.
That’s why she believes it’s important for medical professionals like herself to take cases of climate anxiety seriously.
“This is a feeling that people are having that is absolutely normal in response to a threat that we all share.”
Playing catch up
According to Howard, one of the first steps to tackling climate anxiety is helping medical professionals better understand the real health threat of climate change.
“I view my own profession as essentially having dropped the ball to a large degree, and at this moment, we’re now playing catch up,” she said.
Despite teaching countless medical students each year, Howard said medical schools across the world have been “extremely slow” in introducing climate change into curricula.
One study found that out of 2,817 medical schools in 112 countries, 15 per cent of them have incorporated the effects of climate change on health.
Furthermore, 11 per cent of the medical schools studied had formal education on air pollution and health.
“Air pollution itself, according to the World Health Organisation, kills seven million people a year globally,” Howard said. “Tobacco kills eight million. So we’re talking, even just looking at air pollution, about a threat that kills almost as many people [as] tobacco.”
“We are nowhere close to delivering the messaging and the action items that are required to protect the public from the threat of air pollution, fossil fuels and climate change.”
Climate psychology consultant Leslie Davenport said one of the first things any clinician must do is validate a patient’s concerns and meet them where they are.
But there’s a “problematic” lack of climate training in mental health fields, and thus, a lack of validation for the patient’s fears, she said.
As a result, “a person may come in with very valid concerns … and the therapist, who is just part of the mix of the larger population without any training or context for this, might put it back on the client,” Davenport told The Current.
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One way some doctors are trying to validate their patients’ concerns about climate anxiety is by prescribing nature itself.
Family physician Dr. Melissa Lem is also the director of PaRx, which she describes as “Canada’s national nature prescription initiative.” She said any regulated health professional in Canada can sign up for the program, and they’ll receive a customized nature prescription file and resources on how to prescribe nature effectively.
“It’s a process of working with a patient to figure out their strengths, interests, abilities and what nature is in their local environment, and then literally prescribing nature to them,” she said.
Lem said the program has a standardized recommendation that people spend at least two hours in nature each week, with each session at least 20 minutes in length.
She said this is based on evidence of increased well-being and health at the two-hour mark, and an efficient drop in the stress hormone cortisol between the 20 and 30-minute marks.
Howard said the idea is great, adding that the prescription can be “permission” for patients to take care of themselves better by spending more time in nature.
It’s also a good reminder for the doctors prescribing them.
“When we think about the amount of burnout that we’re seeing in the health professions, I think it’s probably also a good thing for doctors to be writing prescriptions for nature for their patients because it’s a little bit of a message to themselves that they probably ought to also take time to go take care of themselves in nature,” she said.
Produced by Brianna Gosse.