Friday, October 26, 2012

Katherine Rowland - Whole Earth Mental Health (Ecopsychology)

Ecopsychology is a relatively new but rapidly growing field of psychology, with its correlate ecotherapy. Here is a little background on ecopsychology from Robert Greenway, which references Ken Wilber's dismissive assault on earlier ecopsych models. Below this is Rowland's article on ecopsychology.

Six Faces of Ecopsychology
(or 'Six Directions in Search of a Center')

by Robert Greenway

I. Ecopsychology as Umbrella/Container for Discussions About Nature

This is the most common use of the term, and its meanings are diverse, to say the least. Somehow, the term 'ecopsychology' frees people to talk very personally about their concerns over environmental issues, or their angers or fears or grief over specific human-caused problems, or just about anything even remotely connected to natural processes (examples recently gleaned from an Internet ecopsychology group: discussions of recycling, burial practices, education, politics, economics, corporate responsibility, endangered species, ebonics, and so on). There are no boundaries in this realm, although it is commonly assumed, more or less, that any human activity means 'psychology', and anything having to do with 'nature' is ecology, which, together, cover just about everything. Most discussions in this realm are covered more rigorously in other fields. Thus, this category has all the characteristics of a popular fad, a bandwagon, although obviously a need is being fulfilled; perhaps a 'mythic container' is being created, a stimulus for much-needed development of personal and social narrative recasting the human nature relationship.

II. Ecopsychology as Basis for Healing, for a 'New' Therapy

This is also a common (and one of the most coherent) uses of the term.

There are at least two (overlapping) camps within this category:

(A) The psychological problems resulting from Western-Industrial Culture's alleged increasing distance from Nature (or 'natural processes'). Paul Shepherd's work (Nature and Madness) is paradigmatic.

(B) The use of nature (some kind of immersion in nature) for healing what is believed to be 'the human-nature disjunction' (the idea that re-immersion in nature will somehow offset the pathogenic effects of a culture increasingly isolated from- or dominant over- natural processes).

The many forms of wild-erness healing are paradigmatic, although psychotherapists discuss the movement of a therapeutic session from inside the office to out on the patio or a walk in the garden or park as 'ecopsychology'.

III. Calls for an Ecopsychology

For many, expressions of the need for an ecopsychology are synonymous with ecopsychology-as-field. Although as pointed out above, ideas about the human-nature relationship have been around for decades, or centuries (whether couched in philosophical speculations or pragmatic need), the 1990's call for an ecopsychology is at once a call for a container, for a field, for a discipline, for principles, most of all, for something to do to 'save the earth' from human-caused destruction to the very processes upon which humans and all life depends. Theodore Roszak's The Voice of the Earth is paradigmatic; some of James Hillman's writings are calling for a revision of psychology that would acknowledge the existence of a natural context for all psychological processes, all life!; and, as mentioned above, Paul Shepherd's Nature and Madness (and all his other writings) have for a long time been calling for psychology to become aware of the disjunctive effects of our culture's accelerating distancing with natural processes.

IV. Ecopsychology as Experiential

For a variety of reasons (such as recent generations' mistrust of philosophy; of 'words that dominate'; of rationality, objectivity, logic; the relief of physical activity as opposed to thinking; the obvious needs for- and benefits of- 'actions'; the increasingly obvious contradictions between what environmental theorists do and what they say ; the conviction that 'experience' (usually meaning experience prior to cultural mediation) is more 'correct' or 'spiritual' or should have primacy over all subsequent psychological processes) - all this and more brings into the burgeoning ecopsychology 'field' calls for 'less talk and more walk'. Thus, for many, 'ecopsychology' means the vision quest, the wilderness excursion, the full-moon ritual, the blockade of a logging road, yoga, or the meditation practice. At a more linguistic level, such actions - and particularly those that involve 'bridges' between culture and nature (such as, say, gardening, sexuality, child-raising, food finding and preparation, shelter, etc.) - are seen not so much as synonymous with ecopsychology, but an essential experiential source of psychological language (i.e., from experience-to-language rather than from philosophy-to-language).

V. Spiritual Practice as Ecopsycyology

This of course overlaps with category IV, above, but warrants separate attention, for the reason that, though 'spiritual' here means primarily experiential, it also includes the theoretical, as for example, Ken Wilber's massive intellectual work (in particular the first book in his huge trilogy: Sex, Evolution, and Spirit). The underlying assumption here, crucial to many in the environmental movement, is that nature is spirit (i.e. 'Source', where a return to 'right relationship' with nature implies a right relationship with Spirit, and that without this depth (or height!) all efforts at healing the human-nature relationship will fall short. Of course the debate rages whether Spirit has fully descended into earth, or whether earth-consciousness is evolving towards a higher 'spirit' (or whether both are true). Whatever, many now working within an ecopsychology umbrella strive for that feeling or 'groove' of oneness with nature, and assume this to be an essential spiritual approach to healing the human-nature relationship. Many others are turning to the works of Ken Wilber as a trans-personal psychology base for the 'psychology' part of ecopsychology; or to Buddhist psychology (or other religions) as a way of including spirit or 'mystery' in the attempts to overcome the dualism currently inherent in western cultural views of the human-nature relationship.

VI. 'Core' Ecopsychology as Language

Without discounting any of the above categories of emergent ecopsychology, this category -- very sparse, and without much attention indeed – attempts to 'ground' an ecopsychology in language (the 'logos' of both psychology and ecology) that is philosophically coherent and consistent. The assumption here is, like other disciplines, without a core language, or at least a core set of questions, something as vast as 'ecopsychology' will fly off in all directions and will become, essentially, meaningless, however stimulating or productive of an occasional insight it may be.

Assumptions tend to be that the human-nature relationship is psychologically based, that psychology (as emergent in culture) is capable of being skewed (and that this is the case in Western culture), that no existing psychology has a complete handle on the situation (and thus a 'new' psychology must emerge), that the human cognitive penchant for extreme dualism is as close as we can presently come to an expression of the cause of the human-nature disjunction; that language needn't be dualistic (though it often engenders dualism), and that, perhaps, 'the question of consciousness' is at the heart of all these core questions. The work of Warwick Fox (Transpersonal Ecology) is an attempt at a core language, using an analysis of 'deep ecology' and 'transpersonal psychology' to formulate a model of a healthy human-nature relationship. Ken Wilber's work attempts the same, although his rather vicious attacks on deep ecology and earlier forms of ecopsychology for not being transpersonal enough (or rather, for not being couched explicitly in Wilber's latest transpersonal models) makes his work somewhat problematical. At present, the only true ecopsychology text is by Deborah Winter (Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split Between Planet and Self), which is an excellent basic text that combs through a variety of psychologies and philosophies in search of an ecopsychological language that would be practical and stimulating for changing behaviors re the human-nature relationship. There are of course many shorter papers coming out dealing with definitions and ecopsychological ideas, and a number of books in the works that will, hopefully, help to focus this 'field' in a coherent language.
And now, here is Katherine Rowland's new article from Guernica.

Katherine Rowland: Whole Earth Mental Health

By Katherine Rowland

September 20, 2012
The evolving field of ecopsychology aims to cure what ails us by bridging the human-nature rift.

Image from Flickr via Poytr
By Katherine Rowland
“The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment,” said Herman Daly in his 1977 treatise Steady State Economics, invoking the notion that global financial systems hang in careful balance dependent on the planet’s environmental health—a rare idea for the time. Economists, environmentalists, and social scientists alike have since carried variations of Daly’s logic to consumers and boardroom members, urging the public and private sectors to recognize that capital can only be as healthy as the resources on which it depends. Even these ambitious ideas, though, don’t question the underlying assumption that the whole wild world exists for man to mine and plunder, and that we humans are separate from the nature rather than a part of it.

The group of specialists now calling bluff on this disconnection is a surprising one, coming not from wildlife biology or atmospheric science but from mental health professions. Many suggest that it’s high time to reframe Daly’s adage to include the human psyche. An evolving field known as “ecopsychology” proposes that the pervasive but fictive gulf between man and nature not only drives ecological decline, but also contributes to modern afflictions such as depression, anxiety, obesity and heart disease. From tenuous roots in Hippie-era urgings that we all be one with mother earth, ecopsychology has in recent years emerged as a legitimate approach to mental health, elaborating on research showing that people benefit from contact with nature—and suffer from its absence.

As If the Whole Earth Mattered

Oregon-based clinical psychologist Thomas Doherty has been at the forefront of efforts to usher the field into the realm of academic credibility. One of the directors of the American Psychological Association’s recently established Climate Change Task Force, Doherty is encouraging his mental health colleagues to address the psychic damage caused by ecological decline and the modern world’s insistent separateness from nature.

“Ecopsychology is not a discipline, so much as it is a social movement, a world view,” he says. Although practitioners have evolved a number of diverse treatment methods, from conducting therapy sessions out of doors to helping clients grieve toxic spills and species loss, Doherty says one of the unifying ideas in ecopsychology is its attempt to integrate a different set of questions into clinical practice. What, for example, does it mean to live as part of the web of life, but to behave as if we didn’t?
Ecopsychology endeavors to explode the nature-culture, mind-body binaries that for centuries have informed how we measure sanity and health. This bifurcating tendency is at the murky core of modern pathologies.
The seeming simplicity of this question obscures its underlying radicalism. “Psychology, as part of the Western tradition, is a Cartesian enterprise,” says Doherty. “It consciously tries to separate humans from the rest of nature.” The widely accepted rift between nature and humanity has supposed roots as broad and deep as the advent of language, of agriculture, the legacy of the Enlightenment. Ecopsychology endeavors to explode the nature-culture, mind-body binaries that for centuries have informed how we measure sanity and health. This bifurcating tendency doesn’t preserve civilization from savagery, but rather is at the murky core of modern pathologies, like anxiety, substance abuse, and compulsive shopping. In other words, it is only because we are at such a remove from nature that we can behave the way we do: using resources with no regard for consequence, consuming goods with no thought as to their production. Doherty asks “what if we were to reinvent psychology so that at its heart it was an ecological discipline?” Could changing our relationship to nature hold the key to mental health?

Shamans and Scientists

While aspects of ecopsychology emerged in the 1960s, congruent with the gathering force of the environmental movement, it was not really until the 1990s that it gained traction. In 1992 social historian Theodore Rozak (who takes credit for the term “counter-culture”) introduced “ecopsychology” into the vernacular, and called on practitioners to pursue “psychology as if the whole earth mattered.” The diversity in the field suggests that there is no general consensus on what this exactly means. Today, adherents hail from ranks as diverse as therapists, clinical researchers, wilderness guides, shamans, activists and anthropologists, whose methods range from conducting therapy sessions in parks, to vision quests, to documenting the healing qualities of green spaces, and probing what motivates someone to “sell their own nest.” But despite its eclecticism, ecopsychology has steadily begun to penetrate mainstream psychological circles. In 2010, Doherty launched the first peer-reviewed journal devoted to the subject, and this year MIT released a dedicated anthology. As a field of advanced study, ecopsychology degrees and courses are now offered by Lewis and Clark, Oberlin, and the University of Wisconsin, among other institutions.
How does depression correspond to a ruined landscape, or anxiety link to global warming or visions of future generations walking round a world eternally diminished?
However, when it comes to hard facts and data, ecopsychology begins to falter. While there is a robust literature supporting the idea that spending time in nature offers a host of health benefits, such as decreased stress, improved ability to focus, and even lowered risk for heart disease, proving cause and effect is far from clear. “There’s a lot of research showing the psychological benefits of nature. But does the loss of the natural world degrade mental health? That’s a difficult conclusion to support,” says experimental psychologist John Davis. How, for example, does depression correspond to a ruined landscape, or anxiety link to global warming or visions of future generations walking round a world eternally diminished? Although more and more research has tried to broach these issues, much of the relationship between mental health and nature remains elusive, falling into chasms described simply as “psyche,” “consciousness,” and “modern life.” But Davis suggests that even if the connections are drawn in wavering lines, they underscore an important shift in psychological practice. Rather than consider anxiety or depression as outcomes of strictly personal history and circumstance, ecopsychology admits the possibility that outside events and circumstance bear on mental health. “Sometimes,” says Davis, “suffering really is about the planet.”

The Connection Cure

After years of psychiatric treatment that did little to resolve his long-standing depression, a patient, whom we’ll call Paul, enlisted the services of an ecopsychologist. Paul had taken a number of drugs to manage his symptoms and weekly laid out on the proverbial couch to reflect on his childhood and past relationships, “but this persistent sense of doom remained,” he says. “If the world is going to hell, I just couldn’t really see the point of carrying on everyday. Raising my family, working my job seemed really futile to the point of absurdity, if we are destroying the earth so quickly that my kids will just be left with a mess.”

As a practitioner, Davis came to ecopsychology with similar preoccupations in mind. Once captivated by the psychological ramifications of living through the Cold War, in the early 1980s, he turned his attention to the environment: “Just as the atomic clock was moving further from midnight, I began to ask what it’s like for young people to grow up with a sense of environmental damage, devastation, and ecological peril.” Widespread environmental destruction, and sobering realities like climate change can impinge on the mental health of youth, he says, taking away from the sense of having options or a positive future.
“It’s a form of insanity that we’re in the process of destroying our own life support systems.”
For Davis, as well as a significant number of ecopsychologists and ecotherapists, the solution is not to take stock of silver linings, but rather to more actively engage with feelings of pain and loss. He describes contemporary attitudes toward the environment as akin to a passerby blithely strolling as a woman is murdered in the street. “There’s a learned helplessness,” he says. “We grow numb rather than face what’s really going on. We need to learn how to be active participants rather than bystanders to a tragedy.”

Your childhood house is now dust buried beneath a strip mall; the apple tree that once gave you shade has been cut, burned, turned to splinter; the rivers where you once fished now run thick with toxic silt. Youth inherit this depletion and everywhere is starving, poisoned, desiccated, stripped and out of balance.

“This environmental destruction can cause a profound sense of loss,” says clinical therapist Linda Buzell, founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy. “And it’s important to reckon with what that means, and really experience that pain in order to move through it.”
We suffer because we’re removed from nature; nature suffers because we are removed from it.
For Paul, therapy involved a serious inquiry into how he valued nature. “I spent a lot of time thinking about this tree that I used to love in a field by my house, and how angry I was when it was cut down so that the field could be turned into one of those McMansion developments.” Paul’s therapist encouraged him to spend more time outdoors. “There was a whole year when I just meditated on leaves. At first I didn’t really think much about them, but it became a gateway to start thinking about how I was connected to this enormous, incredible ecosystem, and I began talking about these issues with my wife and friends, and teaching my kids about ecology.”

But achieving reconciliation is rarely an easy process, offers psychologist and educator Craig Chalquist, who with Buzell recently authored Healing with Nature in Mind. “The ecological crisis is also a crisis of human consciousness,” he says. “Much of modern culture is dedicated to helping us numb ourselves. We become apathetic, paralyzed, to protect ourselves from feeling overwhelmed.”

Part of ecopsychologists’ solution rests in simply opening up a space for people to give voice to ambient worries and free-floating distress. Herein, suggests Chalquist, ecopsychology can assume an advocacy role, helping people to not only identify their concerns, but strategize ways to address environmental damage in their own communities and professional lives.

Eco-Grief and Eco-Action

Buzzell describes the process of becoming conscious of ecological decline as similar to the stages of grief that accompany the death of a loved one: from despair, it’s possible to move toward acceptance. Looking to the widespread apathy in younger generations—“They know they got a raw deal!” – Buzzell maintains that helping youth validate their anger can serve to empower them to make behavioral changes in their own lives; they don’t have to adhere to the wasteful, anti-ecological, consumerist precedents set by their parents, she says.

But here, the field confronts a challenge larger than internalized eco-grief. While the modern world’s diminished landscapes may contribute to malaise, so too does the modern mind, with its heavy bent toward apathy and consumer appetites, facilitate ecological degradation. The current state of the world is in and of itself a symptom of an “insane disconnection between humans and the environment,” says Buzzell. “From top to bottom across modern culture, this rift is evident. It’s a form of insanity that we’re in the process of destroying our own life support systems.”

“It’s possible,” says Chalquist, “to regard climate change as a consequence of mental health. Not in terms of strict cause and effect, but as systemic consequences. You tune out the built environment, you buy more stuff to distract yourself. We’re living and participating in a system that industrializes the destruction of the world.”

“What is the effect of global climate change on the psyche of young people, growing up in full knowledge that the world they’re inheriting is different from the world of their parents?” asks Buzzell. “Scientists are now saying, sorry folks, we’ve crossed the line. So it’s really time to focus on resilience, learning how to live on a new planet—it’s changing so quickly it’s no longer the same planet you were born on.”

Although ecopsychology introduces a provocative philosophical and analytical approach to conventional mental health practices, it rests on a slippery theoretical ground, and in its diversity exists both its greatest assets and weaknesses. Searching for a therapist to whom to bring your environmental woes, you are as likely to find a clinical practitioner as you are a shamanic guide, and the field’s general inclusiveness makes for some strange bedfellows. This inclusiveness, however, is also what gives the field its dynamism: ecopsychology rallies the mainstream and the unorthodox round a central problem, on the unique premise that treating a pervasive malady is more important than maintaining disciplinary divides.

However, adherents of all stripes expound an ideal of ecological connectedness, against which degrees of separation are meted out in mental suffering. We suffer because we’re removed from nature; nature suffers because we are removed from it. Yet this ideal does not exist in modern life, but rather reaches across time and culture to restore mankind to some archetypal form, composed of equal parts history, myth and longing. “All we’re doing is remembering what we’ve lost,” says ecopsychologist Betsy Perluss. “We’re not creating anything new. This is in our DNA.” Even in its most radical interpretations, psychology remains a small-scale enterprise, typically focused on individual minds, rather than entire cultures. Its very person-centered approach, treating one individual at a time, might undermine the larger goal of enjoining humanity and nature. But while ecopsychology may not achieve a culture-wide revolution, let alone halt what Chalquist calls industrialized destruction, it frames the resource-use mentality as sickness, and in so doing may be positioned to address the crises of earth and psyche it generates.

~ Katherine Rowland is a journalist currently based in New York. Her work has appeared in Nature, the Financial Times, the Independent, OnEarth and other publications.
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