Andrew Bryant can still remember when he thought of climate change as primarily a problem of the future. When he heard or read about troubling impacts, he found himself setting them in 2080, a year that, not so coincidentally, would be a century after his own birth. The changing climate, and all the challenges it would bring, were “scary and sad,” he said recently, “but so far in the future that I’d be safe.”
That was back when things were different, in the long-ago world of 2014 or so. The Pacific Northwest, where Bryant is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist treating patients in private practice in Seattle, is a largely affluent place that was once considered a potential refuge from climate disruption. Climate change sometimes came up in therapy sessions in the context of other issues — say, a couple having arguments because they couldn’t decide if it was still ethical to have kids — but it was rare, and usually fairly theoretical. “We’re lucky to be buffered by wealth and location,” Bryant said. “We are lucky to have the opportunity to look away.”
The smoke was the first sign that things were starting to change. People who live in the coastal Northwest often joke that the brief, beautiful bluebird summers are the reason everyone puts up with so many months of chilly gloom. But starting in the mid-2010s, those beloved blue skies began to disappear. First, the smoke came in occasional bursts, from wildfires in Canada or California or Siberia, and blew away when the wind changed direction. Within a few summers, though, it was coming in thicker, from more directions at once, and lasting longer. The sun turned blood-red or was all but blotted out, disappearing along with the city skyline; the sky turned gray, or sepia, or eerily tangerine, and ash floated down like snow. Sometimes there were weeks when you were advised not to open your windows or exercise outside. Sometimes there were long stretches where you weren’t supposed to breathe the outside air at all.
Now lots of Bryant’s clients wanted to talk about climate change. They wanted to talk about how strange and disorienting and scary this new reality felt, about what the future might be like and how they might face it, about how to deal with all the strong feelings — helplessness, rage, depression, guilt — being stirred up inside them.
As a therapist, Bryant found himself unsure how to respond. He grew up deeply interested in science and nature — he was a biology major before his fascination with human behavior turned him toward social work — but he always thought of those interests as separate from the profession he would eventually choose. And while his clinical education offered lots of training in, say, substance abuse or family therapy, there was nothing about environmental crisis, or how to treat patients whose mental health was affected by it. He began reaching out to other counselors, who had similar stories. They came from a variety of clinical backgrounds and orientations, but none of their trainings had covered issues like climate change or environmental anxiety.
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