Delia O’Hara | June 7, 2018
Clinical psychologist Thomas Doherty has coined a term — “climate hostages” — to describe people who feel the urgency of the climate change crisis but must cope with denial of the phenomenon among segments of the population. Practicing with a specialty in “ecopsychology,” which focuses on human interdependence with nature, he helps clients live well and responsibly in an anxious time.
Doherty, who does counseling and psychotherapy in Portland, Oregon, has an abiding love of nature. He believes it has profound healing powers, and he helps clients not only form a stronger bond with the natural world, but also work through anxiety they may have about the harm humans have done to it.
“That really troubles people. We need to honor that,” he says.
A decade ago, Doherty, an APA Fellow and a past president of Division 34, served on the APA Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change, which explored human behavioral patterns that have created and exacerbated the problem, as well as its psychosocial impact. Doherty was the only clinically trained psychologist on the panel.
Working on the task force was a great learning experience, Doherty says, but his passion for nature has infused his entire adult life. He grew up in an urban environment in Buffalo, New York, but as an undergraduate English major at Columbia University in New York City, he loved reading adventure stories by writers like Jack London and Jack Kerouac. After college, he took off to the Pacific Northwest to work as a fisherman in Alaska, and then as a guide in wilderness therapy and whitewater rafting programs all over the West. He also worked as an environmental advocate for Greenpeace. Through those experiences, he learned about the issues and politics of conservation.
He says, “I came into the field in an interdisciplinary way. I had my own path, and I knew what I wanted to achieve.”
Still, working toward his PsyD at Antioch University New England in Keene, New Hampshire, he went out of his way to explore areas new to him, especially health psychology and behavioral medicine. His dissertation was on anxiety and depression among cardiac patients. He also interned at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. After graduate school, he again went west and began a clinical practice in Portland. Getting involved in environmental activities in Portland led him to the academic community there, he says.
“I was able to do all sorts of interesting startup work” at the intersection of psychology and environmental science, Doherty says, including establishing a certificate program in ecopsychology for mental health professionals at the graduate school at Lewis and Clark University, where he taught for years, and serving as the founding editor of the journal Ecopsychology.
People interact with the natural world in diverse ways, from hunting and fishing, to hiking, gardening, or even simply driving to the beach once in a while to watch the sunset, but Doherty says, “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like nature.”
He often has clients draw pictures of the neighborhoods where they lived as children, in those first few years when they were old enough to play outside. “Every time people do this, they draw someplace near their home where they liked to go, a park or green space, little nooks the adults overlooked, climbing trees. I’ve never had a person not be able to do that exercise,” he says.
In his clinical work, Doherty looks for a lapse in a client’s relationship with nature. “One of the best ways to promote well-being is to have a healthy lifestyle, and that involves a relationship with the outdoors,” he says.
But the more people understand the importance of nature in their lives, the more they may be vulnerable to anxiety about the human impact on the natural world, he says. One of Doherty’s personal interests is in how people answer the question, in terms of environmental advocacy, how much is enough?
“I think about that a lot. I do carbon offset when I travel. I do a lot of environmental things, but climate change is going to be with us all our lives, and there’s a sense we’re never doing enough,” a feeling that can interfere with happiness, he says. “I would say someone is doing enough for the environment when they are honestly striving to the best of their abilities, while also preserving their capacity for satisfaction, good relationships, and awe at the beauty in the world.”
Climate change has been an issue since the 19th century, Doherty says, but in the 1980s, when the science came into sharper focus, the topic became politicized.
“That’s when people actively started to denigrate the science,” he says.
Natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions tend to bring people together to help those in need. But a technological disaster — a chemical spill, the meltdown of a nuclear reactor, the collapse of a dam or a levee — has a moral component that tends to drive people apart, because an indifference to the well-being of others often helped cause them, and because the poor and disenfranchised tend to suffer disproportionately. “Those are more difficult to understand,” Doherty says.
But climate change now contributes to both natural and technological disasters. Storms are more frequent and more violent; water levels are rising all over the world. Climate hostages feel anxiety about all these events.
“We realize there’s a problem but we don’t know what to do about it, and the people in charge aren’t doing anything to fix it,” Doherty says.
Doherty himself takes the long view. Climate change denial, he says, is based on misinformation and propaganda campaigns actively promulgated by certain interest groups. “I think it’s a crime, really a criminal act in terms of public health and welfare. To orient ourselves in these times, we need to think about the bigger picture,” he says.
He considers the stance of the current administration “a rear-guard action” that will eventually be vacated in the face of the overwhelming facts. Meanwhile, he urges people to work on the state level, where progressive climate change policy is possible.
Also, “be ready when the barriers fall,” Doherty says, quoting a writer friend. “Sometimes we can’t achieve what we want right now, but if we’re ready, there will be a time to work on climate change. Stay on top of that issue in spite of any backward motion we have in the United States right now.”