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Climate Change and Mental Health

The Need for Panic

Climate Change and Mental Health



This has to be my first time speaking about the heat to everyone.

This has to be the first time everyone has spoken about the heat to me.

 

I mean, of course, Global warming is real. But for those of us who have the luxury to survive the heat- physically & mentally, on most days, have the responsibility to reflect on it- not just as a climatic crisis, but as a shared psychosocial fabric of human experience.

 

 

Whilst I wanted to pen a jolly newsletter, I think that ship has sailed (to wherever there is water). Because from where I see, I see people of certain classes working under that ruthless sun, I see dogs drinking filthy water from anywhere possible, I see poverty- of economy, thought & compassion under a bright sun.

That we’re waking up to a literally burning world all around. How does that feel?

 

 

And sure some of us have the massive undertone of privilege where our air-conditioned world doesn’t seem to be burning, but let me break it to you, then it’s melting. For someone who works from home, with 24x7 air conditioning & pets not having to scavenge for water in the scorching sun, my world shouldn’t be withering either, and yet here I am recovering from a self-imposed quarantine & depleted cathexis.

 

So, this newsletter is to inform you that if:

-              Your routines & task lists have sharply fallen off

-              Your energy to respond to social relationships has declined

-              Your mind & body demand a shutdown

-              Your mental health & self-care is marred with unexplained fatigue, you can blame the heat.

 

Sounds rather convenient, isn’t it? So, let’s look at ‘science’.


In a notable (& not so ethical) study at the University of Richmond, researchers exposed rats to either normal room temperature or extreme heat conditions, mimicking the effects of a severe heatwave (around 104°F) for several hours per day over several weeks.

As the weeks passed, the heat-exposed rats began to exhibit concerning changes. Their behaviour grew increasingly anxious, as if constantly on edge. When tasked with navigating mazes, their spatial memory faltered, leaving them disoriented.


Within their tiny brains, a storm was brewing (obviously). Inflammatory markers rose, and stress hormones surged, disrupting the delicate chemical balance, that their life coaches & motivational speakers could not undo. Even the brain activity patterns shifted (despite journalling!!!), reflecting the strain imposed by the unrelenting heat. The researchers watched with concern, realizing that- #1. 104°F/40°C is the new ‘cool’ when temperatures in many parts of the country touched 122°F/52°C, & #2. this experiment was a microcosm of the mental health challenges that climate change like, extreme heat could bring to human populations in a warming world.


Several other ‘experiments’ have been messing with the rodents to ascertain a simple point- that the temperatures/ climate impacts your mental health detrimentally. Ingenious, right?! And I’m not even getting into the class, caste, race or gender differences herein which would only make psychic survival & growth look bleak for one more than the other. Psychoanalyst Donna Orange (2017), “The climate crisis and social injustice are not two separate issues, but rather are one single, inextricably connected issue”.

 

Perhaps, it must appal you how little such obvious facts about your mental health are spoken about. It must anger you that we’re left to find meaning in our internalized pathology of our dysfunction, in a productivity-oriented world. It must rile you to demand a response to this ‘climate crisis buttoned with the pervasive mental health crisis’ CRISIS. I hope it does, for otherwise we’re too the rats in the oblivious experiments of the industrial maze.

 

So where do we go from here?

There is no more denying that the destruction of the earth has a clear correlation with the destruction of the mentalized (Fonagy) world. There is no more denying that the rising temperatures are impacting how we live, feel, and relate with each other in subtle unhealthy adaptive ways. There is no more denying that our psychosocial fabric is melting.

 

The problem here is that I can’t quote Freud or deploy Winnicott to direct us to work through this permeable crisis. This is a concern of the modern world that bereaves us of insight, yet also allows us the freedom to forge new ones. Some ongoing reflections in the praxis that are engaging with this crisis give ample ground to start this conversation.

 

-              We need to re-engage with history, & the planned subversion of it. Our ruptured relationship with the non-human world speaks of a mass psychic withdrawal that one has not yet come to be acquainted with. While the paucity of natural habitat & living has become a new normal, if not a lavish tourism product, our conscious-unconscious relationship with it remains unformed. Simply speaking-what is the experience of breathing air that has forever been below average in AQI, on good days?

 

-              Can we mourn or be anxious about the fact that the objects in the mirror are closer than they appear to be? For a long while the climate crisis made us feel like we’re in the Ice Age (movie), and that the crisis is in the far future. Can the clinic give language to the breakdown of these defences? Can, as therapist, we become curious about the resistance at large in addressing this issue? Can the existential be clinical?

 

-              In her thoughtful paper, A Traumatized Sensibility on a Hotter Planet (2022), psychoanalyst Susan Kassouf speaks of the need to move away from denial and, rather than avoiding catastrophic thinking, actually develop a capacity towards catastrophic thinking. She suggests that speaking from our shared ‘climate trauma’ can cultivate a sensibility of relating, activism & resilience that, for now, seems like the only hope for psychic survival.

 

So this is where I pause, hoping today would be less hot for those who don’t have the luxury to write about ‘how hot it is’. Whilst we write, read & reflect from a place of privilege, I’m unwaveringly certain we also write, read & reflect from a place of compassion & responsibility. A responsibility towards containing the melting world.

 

 

P.S. I hope you & your family are safe, wherever you are. If not the heat, from the cold, the rains, the droughts, the forest fires- from the (bad) mother earth.

 

P.P.S. If you’re safe, I hope that safety has the capacity to be extended to someone who isn’t.

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