Author: Theodore Roszak

Funny how psychiatrists are absolutely inspired when it comes to mapping sexual dysfunction, but fail to chart the strong emotional bond we have with the natural habitat. It’s time for an environmentally based definition of mental health. So the next time you’re feeling down, take yourself off to the woods for a few days.

I recently attended a meeting of the International Rivers Network, a San Francisco-area environmental group. The featured speaker was Dan Beard, head of the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation. After detailing the ways in which big dams have devastated natural watersheds and riverine cultures, he ended with an appeal: “Somehow we have got to convince people that projects like this are crazy.” There was applause all around.

“Crazy” . . . In the presence of environmental horrors, the word leaps to mind. Depleting the ozone is “crazy,” killing off the rhinos is “crazy,” destroying rain forests is “crazy.” Our gut feeling is immediate, the judgment made with vehemence. “Crazy” is a word freighted with strong emotion.

Inflicting irreversible damage on the biosphere might seem to be the most obvious kind of craziness. But when we turn to the psychiatric literature of the modern Western world, we find no such category as ecological madness.

The American Psychiatric Association lists more than 300 mental diseases in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Among the largest of DSM categories is sex. In mapping sexual dysfunction, therapists have been absolutely inspired. We have sexual aversion disorder, female sexual arousal disorder, hypoactive sexual desire disorder (male and female), gender identity disorder, transient stress-related cross-dressing behavior, androgen insensitivity syndrome, fetishism, transvestic fetishism, transvestic fetishism with gender dysphoria, voyeurism, frotteurism, pedophilia (six varieties), and paraphiliac telephone scatologia.

Granted, the DSM bears about the same relationship to psychology as a building code bears to architecture. It is nonetheless revealing that the volume contains only one listing remotely connected to nature: seasonal affective disorder, a depressive mood swing occasioned by seasonal changes. Even here, nature comes in second: If the mood swing reflects seasonal unemployment, economics takes precedence as a cause.

Psychotherapists have exhaustively analyzed every form of dysfunctional family and social relations, but “dysfunctional environmental relations” does not exist even as a concept. Since its beginning, mainstream Western psychology has limited the definition of mental health to the interpersonal context of an urban industrial society: marriage, family, work, school, community. All that lies beyond the citified psyche has seemed of no human relevance–or perhaps too frightening to think about. “Nature,” Freud dismally concluded, “is eternally remote. She destroys us–coldly, cruelly, relentlessly.” Whatever else has been revised and rejected in Freud’s theories, this tragic sense of estrangement from nature continues to haunt psychology, making the natural world seem remote and hostile.

Now all is changing. In the past 10 years, a growing number of psychologists have begun to place their theory and practice in an ecological context. Already ecopsychology has yielded insights of great value.

For one thing, it has called into question the standard strategy of scaring, shaming, and blaming that environmentalists have used in addressing the public since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. There is evidence this approach does more harm than good–especially if, as ecopsychologists suggest, some environmentally destructive behavior bears the earmarks of addiction.

Take consumption habits. In ecopsychology workshops, people frequently admit their need to shop is “crazy.” Why do they buy what they do not need? A common answer is: “I shop when I’m depressed. I go to the mall to be among happy people.” Buying things is strictly secondary–and in fact does little to relieve the depression.

Some ecopsychologists believe that, as with compulsive gamblers, the depression that drives people to consume stems not from greed but from a sense of emptiness. This void usually traces back to childhood experiences of inadequacy and rejection; it may have much to do with the typically middle-class need for competitive success. The insecurity born of that drive may grow into a hunger for acquisition that cannot be satisfied even when people have consumed so much that they themselves recognize they are behaving irrationally.

If the addiction diagnosis of over consumption is accurate, then guilt-tripping the public is worse than futile. Faced with scolding, addicts often resort to denial–or hostility. That makes them prey for anti-environmentalist groups like the Wise Use Movement, which then persuade an aggravated public to stop paying attention to “grieving greenies” and “ecofascists” who demand too much change too quickly.

As every therapist knows, addictive behavior cannot be cured by shame, because addicts are already deeply ashamed. Something affirmative and environmentally benign must be found to fill the inner void. Some ecopsychologists believe the joy and solace of the natural world can itself provide that emotional sustenance. Some, therefore, use wilderness, restoration projects, or gardens as a new “outdoor office.”

“Nature heals” is one of the oldest therapeutic dicta. Ecopsychologists are finding new ways to apply that ancient insight. Over a century ago, Emerson lamented that “few adult persons can see nature.” If they could, they would know that “in the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, no disgrace or calamity . . . which nature cannot repair.”

Why have therapists made so little of this obvious resource? When highly stressed people are asked to visualize a soothing scene, nobody imagines a freeway or a shopping mall. Rather, images of wilderness, forest, seascape, and starry skies invariably emerge. In taking such experiences seriously, ecopsychologists are broadening the context of mental health to include the natural environment. They are hastening the day when calling our bad environmental habits “crazy” will be more than a rhetorical outburst. The word will have behind it the full weight of considered professional consensus.

This, in turn, could be of enormous value in opening people to our spiritual, as well as physical, dependence upon nature. The time may not be far off when environmental policy-makers will have something more emotionally engaging to work with than the Endangered Species Act. They will be able to defend the beauties and biodiversity of nature by invoking an environmentally based definition of mental health. We might then see an assault upon endangered species or old-growth forest as an assault upon the sanity of a community, upon children, or upon our species as a whole.

In devastating the natural environment, we may be undermining a basic requirement of sanity: our sense of moral reciprocity with the nonhuman environment. Yet ecopsychology also offers hope. As ecocidal as our behavior may have become, our bond with the planet endures; something within us voices a warning.

Ecopsychologists have begun to detect in people evidence of an unspoken grieving for the great environmental losses the world is suffering. Sometimes, indeed, clients themselves demand to have that sense of loss taken seriously in their therapy. In a letter to Ecopsychology Newsletter, one reader reports how she confessed her anxiety for our environmental condition to her psychiatrist. “I felt depressed that things had gotten so bad I could no longer drink tap water safely”‘ Her therapist, all too typically, dismissed her feelings as an “obsession with the environment.” That judgment eventually drove the client to seek help elsewhere and finally toward a commitment to the environmental movement.

Denying the relevance of nature to our deepest emotional needs is still the rule in mainstream therapy, as in the culture generally. It is apt to remain so until psychologists expand our paradigm of the self to include the natural habitat–as was always the case in indigenous cultures, whose methods of healing troubled souls included the trees and rivers, the sun and stars.

At a conference titled “Psychology As If the Whole Earth Mattered,” at Harvard’s Center for Psychology and Social Change, psychologists concluded that “if the self is expanded to include the natural world, behavior leading to destruction of this world will be experienced as self-destruction.”

Such an intimate connection with the earth means taking our evolutionary heritage seriously and putting it in an ecological framework. Ecopsychology reinforces insights from naturalists like E. O. Wilson, who suggests that we possess “an innately emotional affiliation with all living organisms”–biophilia–that inclines us toward fostering biodiversity.

If our culture is out of balance with nature, everything about our lives is affected; family, workplace, school, community–all take on a crazy shape. For this reason, ecopsychology does not seek to create new categories of pathology, but to show how our ecological disconnection plays into all existing ones. For example, the DSM defines “separation anxiety disorder” as “excessive anxiety concerning separation from home and from those to whom the individual is attached.” But no separation is more pervasive in this Age of Anxiety than our disconnection from the natural world.

Freud coined the term reality principle to designate that objective order of things to which the healthy psyche must adapt if it is to qualify as “sane.” Writing in a pre-ecological era, he failed to include the biosphere. Ecopsychology is seeking to rectify that failure by expanding the definition of sanity to embrace the love for the living planet that is reborn in every child.

Source: Psychology Today, Jan/Feb96, Vol. 29 Issue 1, p22; , 3p

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