Thomas Doherty conducts Disaster Trauma Training Symposium – Baton Rouge, LA


Drs. Nemeth and Ray, organized a symposium featuring Thomas Doherty, PsyD,
ecopsychologist, as a part of the annual meeting of the US Chapter of the World Council for
Psychotherapy on March 22, 2013. This is in fulfilment of WCP’s commitment to disaster
trauma training focusing on environmental trauma

Drs. Nemeth and Ray, organized a symposium featuring Thomas Doherty, PsyD, ecopsychologist, as a part of the annual meeting of the US Chapter of the World Council for Psychotherapy on March 22, 2013. This is in fulfillment of WCP’s commitment to disaster trauma training focusing on environmental trauma.

In his presentation, Dr. Doherty emphasized that the term ecopsychology was coined in the 1990s when people began to explore their connection to the environment. Although Indigenous Peoples long understood this connection, most individuals in Western society had lost sight of this. Yet, this is an extremely important concept in psychotherapy. Dr. Doherty also emphasized, “It is difficult to change behavior even when life depends on it.” This can certainly be seen when dealing with major environmental traumas such as hurricanes. People remain in denial that there will be a problem, want to live as close as possible to the shore line without expecting any trauma, and want to rebuild what they had before even though sustainability is usually not an option.

Although the science is quite clear on these topics, rather than logic, emotionality prevails. Therefore, many topics that must be addressed are often so motionally laden that they bring out tremendous reactions in individuals. These reactions are so severe at times as to preclude any meaningful problem-solving and/or resolution.

Psychological/psychotherapeutic intervention is therefore crucial to reducing the negative valance of science and increasing individual’s willingness to address these problems. Dr.Doherty noted that climate change issues, global warming issues, etc., have underlying social justice components, which people do not wish to address. Psychologists/psychotherapists are in a unique position to address issues that affect people on their level first. This will allow people to feel valued and therefore be open to new ideas  and opportunities. Dr. Doherty’s final comment was “Feelings are like water. If you share them, they go away. If you cover them up, they stay and build.”

Participants were then given two beach-sized balls filled with air, one representing the earth and the other representing a projective opportunity. As these balls were passed around, participants focused on the earth as they knew it and their perceptual experiences. Some focused on change, others focused on trauma, others on sustainability, etc. The group was multi-disciplinary involving natural scientists, social scientists, and interventionists. For example, Dr. Robert Hamilton, a well-known ecologist, focused his comments on the process of change and how few people are prepared to respond to change. He noted that a reaction is not a response. Dr. Robert Muller, a well-known climatologist, focused on the effects of hurricanes and how many individuals do not take the hurricane warnings seriously. This was a problem, for example, in Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy. On the Gulf Coast of the United States, people are used to hurricanes and have learned to heed hurricane warnings; whereas on the on New York/New Jersey Coast, the last major hurricane struck in 1938. As there was little institutional knowledge, not only were the people not prepared, but the governments and industries were not prepared.

Dr. Ray spoke about the need to be more environmentally proactive to protect the next generation. Mr. Scott Nesbit, who is in charge of a major ecopsychology project in Louisiana, spoke about the difficulties of achieving concensus so that the best good could be achieved for the greatest number of people. Mr. Nesbit went on to state that, at times, industry goals may be disparate from those that are in the best interest of the people. Dr. Nemeth echoed this view when she brought up the difficulties that are currently occurring at Bayou Korne, which is where a sink hole developed as a result of salt brine production. Dr. Donald Nemeth, geologist, explained the geology of salt domes, their use for the storage of natural gas, oil, etc., and the importance of respecting their boundaries so as not to destroy their stability, which would cause sink holes to form.

With the Bayou Korne situation, people are in great distress and currently in need of mental health intervention. Although this need was pointed out by the recent appearance of Erin Brockovich, now famous for her role in investigating the water contamination by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California, industry and government have still not yet formulated a plan for mental health intervention for the residents of Bayou Korne. This may be a future project for WCP.

The Jungersen, et. al., 2013, article focused on the aftermath of both natural and human caused disasters. Nemeth, Hamilton, Kuriansky, 2013, expanded this to include disasters that are a hybrid of both natural events and human-caused events. Many environmental traumas are in this latter category.

All attendees received a Disaster Trauma Training certificate for 3 hours of continuing education, signed by Drs. Nemeth and Ray.

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