A recent article in the Guardian articulated a phenomenon that I’ve long been aware impacts people’s lives, and that often comes into therapy. Climate anxiety, existential threat to lifestyle, and climate crisis first came to my awareness during a session in Canada.
We were consulting from a regional office when a client raised his intense feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame over his workplace role. He was operating one of the newer and massive forestry vehicles that were clear cutting virgin forests in eastern Canada. He described his intense shame and sleepless nights, worrying about the forest, its wildlife, and how the work he was doing was compromising the future of his children and grandchildren. He looked to his therapist for help.
The story immediately raised two pathways in my mind, sitting in the therapist’s chair. 1. Help the father deal with his anxiety so that he could continue in his job and feed his children. 2. Help the father realise and awaken to a deeper consciousness and to sort the very difficult pathway ahead where he will have to make difficult decisions.
The reality was compounded by the fact that if he took the latter path, he would surely just be replaced by another man who would take his role in clearcutting the forest. However, it seemed to me at the time that this very powerlessness is central to the western cultural reality that imposes extreme climate-based existential and social-familial guilt and shame that gives rise to mental health and lifestyle health crisis in our times.
The planet is finite. The forest is limited. The land is a living ecosystem that demands pay-back. If the soil is not fed, the land dies, and creatures become extinct. Human beings are not far off from this distinct possibility. The logging company’s father of two children and his existential threat, coming up in his vivid dreams, was a warning for him and for us all.
In providing therapies related to disability and mental health concerns, we often see people facing the awakening to climate crisis and their sense of powerlessness. We also see the struggles of families and disability service providers who make choices on a daily basis to manage the stress and anxiety and the demands of modern lifestyle pressures. Ironically, the first casualties of this cultural-malaise are diet, nutrition, and healthy activity in the out of doors.
Central to Lifestyle Medicine’s emphasis on, well, lifestyle, is that the health of the human body is fundamentally ecological. The balance is critically important. When the balance is off, the human organism shifts in its internal chemical and metabolic balance. We see increases in stress hormones, gut-brain dysfunctions, sleeplessness and sleep disruption, and eventually social and behavioural concerns.
Yet, how many times we have visited and asked questions over Telehealth regarding what foods types are in the fridge and in the freezer? And how many times have we found that family and staff are buying ready-made meals, frozen dinners, with a stunning proliferation of junk foods, munchies, and sweats. We have found that people are rarely if ever actually cooking natural and non-processed foods on a regular basis.
Likewise, when reviewing lifestyle activities, we often find that there are patterns of increasing inactivity, over-use of screen-time and gaming, and using screens near to bedtime, checking of phones religiously while accessing social media and other sources. All of which over-use patterns are now known to increase a range of symptoms that can lead to chronic health issues and behaviour concerns.
Dialling back on these factors while increasing healthy options often needs to happen. But the critical part is that awareness is increased. The reason why crisis emerges in many cases is that people are unconscious and unaware of the patterns.
All of human life on this planet is built in relationships and patterns of interaction over time. This is why killing the forests leads to human loss of health and life. We are not the first civilisation looking down the black hole of climate crisis. Many have done this before. Archeology as a field of science is full of such stories, as many equally impressive social orders have expired and gone extinct in past. They too were unconscious and unaware.
At the personal level, the individual with behavioural concerns is also in a social and relational context. Their behavioural concerns are not, in our view, isolated to their person alone. They cannot be isolated with clinical labels nor by objectified attitudes and this most certainly should not be happening ethically, morally, nor under human rights standards. All behaviours of concern are relational, contextual, and environmental.
As such, working with complex behavioural concerns is not exactly a simple process. This is most true because often it is the disability and mental health providers who are part of the problem. But they do not see their role, as such. Too often now, they are not trained and have very little capacity to do their professional role in the first place. Staff are often unconscious and unaware of the social and ecological relationships that make up the patterns that eventually cause behavioural concerns.
We have so often urged the NDIS to fund actual capacity building projects within all cases that come forward for behavioural concerns. In probably 90% of cases there is insufficient funding to provide training. However, under the NDIS the pervasive lack of investment in staff training and support is now such a chronic crisis in Australian disability services that behaviour support allocations for training are entirely frustrated by the actual needs of staff for basic training that should be happening before being trained by specialist behaviour support practitioners. For these reasons we have designed training materials to help staff as much as we can. But overall, the needs in the sector are so great that only a national agenda to address these shortfalls will have any real impact on the lack of professional skills among NDIS funded providers.
Featured image credit, Photo by Markus Spiske