Dr. Lise Van Susteren, Psychiatrist, Tackles Climate Change in the Field of Mental Health

By path2positive

Climate for Health's leaders represent a diverse set of professions. From public health to nursing and environmental health, leaders in the health sector have emerged based on recognizing the current state (and fate) of our climate and their own interest pursuing climate solutions. It's impossible to create a leader of someone else. Leaders must feel compelled to act based on their own understanding and volition. Recently, Climate for Health highlighted one of these leaders in our "Leader Spotlight" series. In an interview, well-known general and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren describes how the field of mental health and psychiatry holds 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. Read the interview below.

Leader Spotlight: Lise Van Susteren

By Anna Baker I Climate for Health

“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.

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