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Leader Spotlight: Lise Van Susteren

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by Anna Baker

“At the heart of a psychiatrist’s work is the ability to diplomatically warn people about their behaviors and point out how their choices can affect them, both now and down the road,” says psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren. The practicing general and forensic psychiatrist (and former psychological profiler for the government) was one of 50 people chosen by Al Gore in 2006 for his first-ever training on climate change.

Lise credits the former VP for helping her and “so many others” find their voices on this issue.

The idea that we would be seeing civilization sitting on the train tracks, hearing the train coming through the tunnel, and seeing so many people oblivious or in denial about the consequences of our behaviors was a clarion call for mental health professionals to get into the discussion – to help build a movement to fuel change.

"When I saw in addition that the science wasn't being listened to, I realized that “resistance” – conscious or unconscious, was a fundamental barrier to cross and reflected the collective anxiety about facing bad news.”

Gore’s influence spurred Lise to develop her own slideshows on global warming’s health effects and present it to more than 100 educational, religious, political, environmental, and business audiences, including the Department of the Treasury, the Secret Service, and numerous international groups.

Over time, Lise began to realize she was mostly reaching the already converted, and for those who weren’t convinced, scientific data alone proved insufficient to motivate their concern and behavior change. “In the aftermath of the training, I was quite convinced that we would all do the right thing. We'd just run the numbers, recognize that we had to make these changes to reduce our carbon emissions, and that would be the end of the story. Everyone would be responsive to those numbers. I found out that was a fantasy. While a number of people did respond to the math and could see what was happening, there were others who were not responsive for many, many reasons.” Compelled to broaden and diversify her audience, Lise has made it her charge to find ways to engage people at a higher level around the dangers of climate change.

Multiple Approaches Toward One Goal

The need to develop a more compelling and effective climate message was the inspiration for Van Susteren’s article, Our Moral Obligation, where she called upon fellow mental health professionals to take a unified stand and bring their expertise to bear in motivating actions “to reduce the threat of catastrophic climate change.” As a National Wildlife Foundation board member, Lise continued to integrate her mental health expertise on climate change by calling for the first ever conference on the psychological effects of climate change. She wrote about the proceedings in an  NWF report: “The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System Is Not Adequately Prepared”.

Inspired by her children, who are vegans, Lise further diversified her climate leadership by founding Lucky Planet Foods, a business that would be “good for people, good for animals and good for the planet.”

She was launching Lucky Planet Foods when an activist began calling for more street action. A friend, James Gustave Speth, was an additional influence. “Gus had penned a letter to the editor of the New York Times imploring to know Where are all the college students? Why isn’t everyone in the streets? Where is everybody? Stumbling across a new found “spirituality center in the brain” she decided that what we really needed to make change come quickly was religious fervor. Soon after deciding that the religious movement was critical to promote change, Van Susteren co founded Moral Action on Climate. Last fall, “Moral Action on Climate” with the help of Earth Day Network, organized a rally on the national mall timed for the Pope’s address to Congress as a way of bringing together more voices to echo one of the, if not “the”, world’s greatest moral authority on climate. 

Dawn on the day of the rally

The Critical Role that Psychologists and Psychiatrists Play

Van Susteren sees her own field of mental health and psychiatry as holding tremendous potential for advancing climate action by linking the unique expertise of what can actually motivate people’s behavior to the need for individual and collective climate solutions. She has been a leading voice for cultivating the input and involvement of mental health professionals and their associations. “Psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health workers should be at the epicenter of this discussion - leading the way really, because we are people who focus on behaviors and identify bad choices. We are in the business of warning people about how they are potentially hurting themselves and others, and then specifically addressing what they can do.”

Acknowledging the climate movement foundation that has been laid before her, and the need for other voices and vantage points to weigh in, Lise notes that “environmentalists have done so much to advance knowledge about good policy, to work over the politicians, to till the field for us. They've been doing it for years. Now, other sectors, including and especially the health sector, must get in with the enthusiasm that reflects the urgency, with the goodwill that doctors typically engender. Their involvement can be powerfully persuasive. Many more healthcare professionals are now seeing their connection to the climate crisis, and the actions that are imperative to stave off the worst of the impacts”. 

Psychiatrists and psychologists are naturals at effective communication,” said Lise. “Any good

psychiatrist or psychologist knows that when you have a patient…you try to use the words that you know are in his or her word cloud, because those are the ones that are going to gain you access.” Mental health professionals hold the key to breaking through emotional barriers and engaging patients in a positive way. This holds true on a social level as well; they have the ability to encourage the public and activate social movements.

Solutions: The 1-2 Step Process

“Let's segue to what we can do.” Lise goes on to explain how “anxiety is both a symptom and a tool.”

Anxiety is one of the most troublesome mental health impacts of climate change, she expounds, but it also can be used as the energizing force to motivate change. It's part of the “2-step process” she seems to know like the back of her hand. “Health “messengers” know this process”. Lise explains that first you define the problem in no uncertain terms with all the disastrous consequences, and then you offer a solution that will prevent these from happening, if action is taken.  It provides sustained interest and motivates people toward action because it points to realities and is specific about remedies.

“To motivate people to take better care of their health for example, health professionals will say, this is what’s going to happen if you don’t attend to your blood sugars. They’ll talk about your kidneys and your eyes and all the rest. Then they’ll say, here’s what you can do to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Lise eagerly elaborates. “We are the ones who can open the hood and look under it to start talking about those hidden feeling of climate anxiety, so that people can recognize they are experiencing it and can ask themselves what they can do to reduce their climate anxiety. Most people, and this is a general rule, will feel their anxiety diminish once they start taking real steps to respond to a crisis.”

Continuing on, she relates this dynamic to her own psychiatric practice. “People come into my office every day with anxiety that they are not conscious of, or if they do know, they may not know why they feel anxious. Anxiety is like a dark pool in the brain, draining from all sorts of hidden, nameless crevices. Climate change isn’t the only source of anxiety, but it has a terrible “multiplier effect”. I don't have the slightest shred of a doubt that all of us to some extent are suffering from climate anxiety. People are familiar with PSTD; that is the psychological wounding that takes place after a traumatic event (symptoms include intrusive thoughts about the event accompanied by fear and anxiety, difficulty experiencing joy, problems sleeping, nightmares, and even panic). Many people now have similar symptoms because of what they know or envision as future trauma from climate disasters. I have begun referring to this as pre–TSD.

With one poignant example, Lise drives her point home. “Many may have had this experience as a kid …. you may have walked into the house and knew, although you couldn’t say exactly why, that Mom was mad about something. What a sense of unease it brought. Right now, we know on a very primitive, raw level, Mother Nature is not happy. Whether people can identify it as climate or are willing to identify it as climate, is another story. On some level, I believe we are all experiencing this.”

Psychological Tolls from Physical Threats

Witnessing people suffer is a frequent manifestation of extreme weather. “The physical effects, injuries, the impacts, cardiovascular, respiratory, from dirty air, dirty water, etcetera… all of those have an attendant psychological toll. We're sad when we're sick. We're anxious when we're sick. This is all part of the psychological toll that isn’t counted.”

She explains that “there is the actual psychological toll from seeing or fearing your communities being ripped apart, burned down, or faced with some economic challenge. Let's say there's no snow and the people of a resort town don't have jobs. All of these things have downstream psychological impacts. People are worried, some people are even phobic about extreme weather events. There's a very good study out of Iowa about people who are afraid of tornadoes. They're just petrified every time they hear that there's stormy weather ahead or an actual tornado being forecast. They freeze. They're absolutely paralyzed with fear. “ That’s the immeasurable part. Lise has numerous examples of these.

“We also know that when we have extreme weather events, like Katrina or Sandy, that there's an uptick in domestic violence, drug abuse, child abuse, alcohol abuse. Many impacted communities experience the loss of a sense of place – this was certainly the case with Katrina. The whole culture was eviscerated. People moved to Houston where the crime rate shot up. These are the downstream impacts that people don't realize go into the psychological toll.”

“Einstein said one of my favorite things: Not everything that counts can be counted.” Unmistakably, the psychological toll is one of those things.

Quick to point out that there are also measurable aspects about the psychological toll of climate, Lise refers to a 2013 Science journal paper that assembled 60 of the temperatures and extreme rainfall numbers which led to large increases in conflict. In fact, as the New York Times reported, “for each one standard deviation change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, the median effect was a 14 percent increase in conflict between groups, and a 4 percent increase in conflict between individuals.”

“We're also seeing a rise in suicides and assaults, general violence linked to temperature,” she resumes. And there’s clearly no shortage of quantifiable information. “My friend Jack Spangler, at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard’s School for Public Health, just did a study that showed that rising levels of CO2 cause cognitive impairment and problems with decision making – especially in the arenas of crisis response, information usage and strategic thinking.”

Restoring the Mind and Restoring Nature

“I became interested in psychiatry because the possibility of healing experiences to restore health to people was immensely attractive.“ Connecting her psychiatric work with her core belief that nature holds the answer, Lise goes on to say: “I think that any person who is an activist on climate knows that nature is collapsing.”

“We're at 400 [carbon dioxide ppm], and we're going to go much higher,” she explains. “That's not safe. We have to dedicate ourselves now to bringing these emissions down”. According to Lise, bringing down our carbon emissions isn’t only rocket science.

“Nature can be a healing force if we humans help to unleash it, or in some cases just get of out of the way. For example, Earth Day Network and other groups, through their reforestation efforts, are working hard at restoring natural habitats that will drawn down carbon with downstream positive ripple effects on the entire ecosystem. We know that we have all of the solutions we need, the only missing piece is the political will. We will get there, but the looming question is “will we get there in time?”

 

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