Frontline of the Climate Crisis: Quality of Climate Distress Services

This is the text of GTEC Executive Director, Arden Henley’s presentation to the 2nd Annual Summit on Mental Health and Climate Change, February 3, 2023

Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today. To situate myself very briefly, my ancestors are from the border counties of England, Yorkshire and Northumberland. I am a grandfather living and working in the urban centre now called Vancouver that I gratefully acknowledge is on the unceded traditional and ancestral homelands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

I am the Executive Director of the Green Technology Education Centre, founded in 2017. GTEC’s mission is to accelerate the shift to a just, resilient and sustainable society using the powerful tools of community development and education.

Prior to my work with GTEC I was a family therapist and community leader for over 40 years and a counsellor educator for 20 years after that. I describe myself as scholar/practitioner and beyond that a social architect.

From the perspective of the frontline and with deep respect for research, I want to raise several points with you today. The first is about the urgency of our present situation and its implications for the performance of research. The world of academic research has benefited from the affluence of the so-called developed nations and an increasing respect for science over several generations. Science, itself has evolved during this period, including increasingly refined methodologies and enhanced data management and analysis powered by computers. We have had the luxury of working on getting our understanding of phenomena right before intervening in the complex world of individual lives and relationships.

collage picture of extreme weather events and mental distressThis fortunate era is coming to a close. I think we are going to experience an increasingly disrupted world featuring more intense and frequent extreme weather events, intensifying global warming, heightened zoonotic transmission and, as a consequence, food insecurity, mass migration, widespread stranded assets and, of course, mental and emotional distress on a scale we have not previously experienced. This is not an attempt to be prophetic, it is simply an extrapolation based on the findings of both the natural and social sciences.

The adaptation that I think this requires of us is a shift in emphasis from a more purely scientific effort to get our understanding of phenomena right at the outset to the more messy and iterative work of assessing the efficacy of interventions as we go along. In the near-term future, the public health problems we will face are going to be too painful and widespread to hold back from intervening. We will need more precise and sophisticated developmental evaluation, focused research with the goal of evolving evidence enhanced interventions.

The second point I want to make is about the hidden cultural sources of individual mental health problems. What I mean by this is that… yes, the climate crisis is evoking wide ranging emotional reactivity and increasing levels of mental health problems, but…I want to suggest that the climate crisis itself is the result of a host of mental health problems that are deeply embedded in the cultures of developing or colonizing nations.

To focus, for example, on the immediate environment of BC today, what kind of collective insanity is it, really, to come along, usurp the land upon which peoples have been living for thousands of years, willfully try to destroy their cultures, hack down the forests that sustain life and make it possible to breathe, dump everything from effluent to rusted machinery in the water, all the while burning carbon, willy nilly and, even knowing all this, continuing mostly unabated to this day.

The point is not to be negative…or visit doom and gloom on you today. The point is to be scientifically precise. The mental health problems we are seeing in response to the climate crisis are further down the chain of causation than the sources of the problem and if we fail to address the sources, we will simply, albeit inadvertently, be complicit in its reproduction.

From this point of view, in colloquial terms, to not feel crazy under these circumstances is crazy. The emotional reactivity, that especially young people are experiencing, is a perfectly natural response to a crisis that is being underresponded to by society.

That, by the way, is one of the key findings of the 2021 Lancet study. This study showed wide ranging emotional reactivity to the climate crisis among young people across 9 developed nations based on their perception that decision-makers are not addressing this crisis with the urgency the scientific data warrants. The risk here is that we will busy ourselves engineering treatment protocols to ameliorate phenomena that are, strictly speaking, not clinical. Before we know it, Big Pharma will be marketing Soma for the symptoms of eco-anxiety.

By the way, I am not saying – do not help to people who are distressed by the climate crisis. It is a question of clarity and emphasis. We need to apply ourselves equally to understanding the sources of the problem and not become amnesic about the sources in the treatments we design. We need, for example, to associate socio-economic factors such as income disparity with the degree of climate anxiety across populations.

The next point I want to make is about a significant, but often overlooked dimension of research. Psychotherapy research and its relatives, public health and education research often focus on measuring the efficacy of methods and protocols as if they were the major source of variance. But, psychotherapy research over the past two decades has shown that the major source of variance is the client’s perception of the quality of her or his relationship with the therapist, as well as his or her perception of the extent to which interventions address problems as she or he experiences them. The implication is that if we leave assessing the efficacy of the therapist’s performance out of the equation, we will have missed accounting for the major piece of the variance.

Equally importantly, we will have omitted the most powerful way of improving our interventions, that is by improving the therapist’s performance, specifically, by helping them to improve their relationship building skills and their capacity to discern the problem as clients experience it.

We have to improve the quality of the programs we offer and…and, the performance of the people who deliver the programs.

There are a number of measures, for example, that Scott Miller and his colleagues have developed that assess therapist performance. Miller, Hubble and Chow’s recent book Better Results: Using Deliberate Practice to Improve Therapeutic Effectiveness summarizes this work in a handy and accessible way.

To summarize, I have raised three issues today:

  1. The urgency of responding to the climate crisis and the significance of iterative research in the evolution of interventions.
  2. The upstream sources of the climate crisis.
  3. The importance of including an evaluation of the performance of the intervener in research.

Thanks again for this opportunity to speak with you today.