Psychology is in a crisis. In recent decades, rates of depression have exponentially risen to become the second leading cause of disability worldwide, closely followed by anxiety. At the same time, we are faced with the pressing issues of social inequality, environmental destruction and climate change. What if we could tackle all of these by bringing them into context?
The ever-accelerating machine that is the industrial age (also called Anthropocene) keeps raging across the planet, forcing us to move at a speed unnatural to what we have evolved to. We are constantly surrounded by new stimuli, bombarded with information, our desires suppressed with access to any consumer comfort we could possibly desire. Freud, for all his faults, predicted this rise of “madness” following the progress of industrialisation and urbanisation.
Our inability to keep up with our own creations in evolutionary terms leads to the growing emergence of what has been termed psychoterratic illnesses (Albrecht, 2011). These include the more well-known Eco-anxiety as well as Ecological Grief and Ecoparalysis (the state of overwhelm at the extent of the climate crisis and subsequent inability to act). My own research has dealt with the mental health impacts of climate change upon environmental activists and I wrote my dissertation on ecological grief and resilience which I will cover more in-depth in another article.
Ecopsychology in theory and practice
The increasing emergence of mental illness due to stressors associated with environmental change has led to the development of a new paradigm in psychological theory, practice and research. Ecopsychology seeks to re-establish the emotional connection between humans and nature, acknowledging that while our minds are shaped by the modern world, their underlying structure was created in the natural environment. One of the key drivers of rising psychopathology, therefore, is our complicity in the destruction of the natural world. Theodore Roszak, who coined the term Ecopsychology, writes in his 1995 book The Voice of the Earth:
The species that destroys its own habitat in pursuit of false values, in wilful ignorance of what it does, is “mad” if the word means anything.
The problem with psychology reaches far back and is to be found in the dichotomy of mind and environment, introduced by leading scientists in the 17th century. Since its early beginnings, the psychological theory has been primarily based on analysing the “inner world” and its relation to the “outer world”, namely the human mind and its environment. The issue herein lies in the fact that the only environmental factors regarded in psychology, by and large, are the individual’s immediate physical and social environment amongst which humans function as self-contained units experiencing the “inner world”.
Roszak and other Ecopsychologists argue that the global environment must be taken into account in our view of the human psyche. Humans have an innate sense of relatedness with the natural environment they evolved from – this is sometimes called the Ecological Unconscious. Ecopsychology is based on the fundamental principle of reciprocity – many of the things that are good for ecological systems are also good for humans; it follows that when we harm the natural environment, we will also suffer. Ecopsychology seeks to re-establish our sense of connectedness with nature and herewith facilitate healing.
Ecopsychology still moves on the margins of psychological institutions and ecotherapy is, unfortunately, still not available on the NHS despite its proven effectiveness in alleviating depression and anxiety. Green spaces improve both physical and mental health and while conventional therapy focuses on the individuals’ relationships to other people or society at large, ecotherapy deals with human-nature relationships as an all-encompassing factor. The ultimate aim of Ecotherapy is a process of mutual healing and growth between the human mind and the natural environment it originated from by consciously reconnecting them. Mental health, therefore, is closely connected to protecting and preserving nature.
Psychology has a problem with racism
The fundamental premise of Ecopsychology is the interconnectedness and equality of all beings, both human and non-human. While the concept itself is true, it does not address the pressing issue of global social inequality which is extremely relevant in the fight against environmental destruction. People of colour are most affected by pollution and countries in the global south already feel the devastating effects of climate change. So far, Ecopsychology has been built on abstract theory without addressing these real-world issues which have to be taken into account when connecting environmental change to mental health.
Here is where Ecopsychology’s potential comes in. So far, our mental health system has been built on systemic racism. From the early days of psychology, scientifically false beliefs were used in order to “prove” racial inferiority and justify racism (IQ tests being only one of many examples). Instead of being given appropriate healthcare, people of colour are more often incarcerated for showing mental health symptoms than their white counterparts.
POC patients often have to deal with misdiagnoses and preconceived notions about their behaviour as a result of cultural disconnect – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals make up only 9.6% of qualified clinical psychologists in England and Wales, in contrast to 13% of the population. BAME applicants are also less likely to be accepted into doctorial programmes in the UK which is a prerequisite for becoming a chartered psychologist. A more diverse workforce as well as overhauling our clinical approach would provide more accurate and fair clinical outcomes.
The quality and accessibility of mental health treatment also largely depends on social class. Types of therapy that are not deemed “essential” are often only available at a high price, excluding a large proportion of the population from receiving the help they seek (which in itself requires a lot of energy and effort). Poverty itself has been linked to higher instances of mental illness. Mental health care, in our industrial society, has become a luxury.
I believe that it is the duty of psychological researchers and practitioners to actively dismantle this system of oppression. And I believe that connecting anti-racism work with Ecopsychology can be of immense benefit to the environmental movement which is often mainly focused on political action on climate change in western countries without demanding global justice and prioritising the protection of marginalised groups who already feel the effects of environmental degradation here in the UK and in other so-called developed countries. The mental health implications of climate change disproportionately affect people of colour and people with lower socio-economic backgrounds; they will be hit first and hardest. Ecopsychology stipulates that there are no hierarchies within the human community – a view we need to adopt and put into action.
A new approach
Taking all these facts into account, it follows that psychology will need to transform towards a new paradigm of what I call Intersectional Ecopsychology, built on the pillars of our deep connection to natural environments and active engagement in anti-racism work. We cannot work from the premise that all life is equal if our society does not treat all human life as equal.
I do not want to suggest that I have sufficient qualifications or expertise to inform the necessary policies needed to transform our mental health system. This is a problem that has existed as long as psychological science, yet it wasn’t talked about a single time throughout my entire psychology degree. I feel a responsibility to speak up on behalf of other psychology graduates actively aiming to transform the existing, dysfunctional system and encourage everyone else to start addressing how mental health is designed in a fundamentally unequal way.
Every person on our planet should have a right to access adequate mental health care. Combining our activism with the belief that we must protect the natural environment in order to ensure future generations do not experience the pain and suffering stemming from our disconnect from nature – this is what I’m advocating for.