Well, Doctor, I Have This Recycling Problem

Thomas Doherty and other Portland psychologists were interviewed about Ecopsychology and people’s concerns about environmental issues.

See article below as published originally HERE.

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Keith Payne, a graduate student at Lewis & Clark College, relaxed before class at a campus reflection place. Ecopsychology classes are taught at the college.
Keith Payne, a graduate student at Lewis & Clark College, relaxed before class at a campus reflection place. Ecopsychology classes are taught at the college.

The New York Times

Published: February 16, 2008


SOME months ago, Catherine McLendon and her husband, Martin, decided to talk to a psychologist. The couple have a blended family with three adolescent sons, and they wanted guidance in easing some typical adjustment problems.

But a few sessions in, Ms. McLendon, a floral designer, and Mr. McLendon, a bus driver, realized their worries extended beyond the demands of work, school and extracurricular sports.

Ms. McLendon was troubled by the family’s consumption habits, while Mr. McLendon worried about the disappearance of green space. In therapy, their psychologist, Sandy Shulmire, began providing the family with practical instructions for reducing anxiety, and their carbon footprint.

Dr. Shulmire is a practitioner of ecopsychology, a new form of therapy that is starting to find a following in this green-minded corner of the United States. Like traditional therapy, ecopsychology examines personal interactions and family systems, while also encouraging patients to develop a relationship to nature.

Therapists like Dr. Shulmire use several techniques, from encouraging patients besieged by multitasking to spend more time outdoors to exploring how their upbringing and family background influence their approach to the natural world.


As part of their therapy, the McLendons bought a solar-powered water heater and energy-conserving doors. As a family, they volunteer for beach cleanups and tree-planting events, and also instruct their children to play outside every day.

“Sometimes it is just so tough to get those kids out from behind their Nintendos and long showers,” Ms. McLendon said. “I feel like a real nag. But I just keep trying. If my kids see me use reusable shopping bags, they’ll be more likely to do it, too.”

The word ecopsychology was popularized in the early 1990s by, among others, the social critic Theodore Roszak, who wrote two books that explored the link between mental health and ecological health. Its practice now takes a variety of forms.

Some therapists offer strategies for eco-anxiety in private sessions, or lead discussion groups for the conservation-minded. More than 120 therapists from Alaska to Uruguay are listed as practitioners at the International Community for Ecopsychology Web site (ecopsychology.org), and colleges in the United States and Europe offer courses in the field.

Ecopsychology lacks a scientific journal, and no Sigmund Freud-type figure has fully developed its theory. For now, the America Psychological Association is neutral toward the practice. “It is an emerging field of study and we are certainly watching it,” said Kim Mills, a spokeswoman for the organization.

Some psychologists are skeptical that the practice of ecopsychology has any provable benefits.

“There are lots of interesting and novel ideas out there, but I am not aware of any research that shows that this approach would be helpful,” said Scott O. Lilienfeld, a psychology professor at Emory University. “Even if one believes that global warming is caused by humans, there is a fine line between therapy and advocacy. Therapists need to mind that line.”

Dr. Lilienfeld said therapists must also be aware of the larger psychological issues for patients worried about the environment.

“If the patient has generalized anxiety disorder, he or she is going to be worrying about almost everything,” Dr. Lilienfeld said. “So are concerns about global warming just one piece of the elephant? Therapists need to be cautious before focusing too heavily on one psychological issue.”

But ecopsychology can help patients come to terms with their feelings about the natural world, said Thomas Doherty, who teaches ecopsychology at the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling in Portland. “People are overwhelmed,” said Dr. Doherty, who also sees patients in private practice. “They need help in learning how to balance their roles as parents, as children, as citizens and now as ecocitizens.”

For clients with global warming anxiety, Dr. Doherty suggests a multistep process that is similar to kicking an addiction. He advises them to accept the limits of what they can control. He recommends “fasts” from shopping, e-mailing, and the news, while cultivating calmer pursuits like meditation or gardening.

Dr. Jeff Noethe, a Portland psychologist, says that when seeing new patients, he asks them about the amount of time they spend outdoors.

“We think nothing of asking about how much alcohol people drink or how many cigarettes they smoke,” Dr. Noethe said. “But when we overlook the natural world, we’re overlooking the most fundamental aspect of who we are as human beings.”

As part of his therapy, Dr. Bill Plotkin, a Colorado psychologist, leads groups into deserts, canyons and mountains. During such trips, which range in cost from $650 to $2,300, he urges clients to lie on the earth in a bonding exercise.

“I tell them to imagine the earth as a healthy parent,” said Dr. Plotkin, the author of “Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World.”

Small children are often encouraged to dig for worms or play in the snow, but such freedom outdoors usually gives way to more structured activities by middle school, he said.

“We need to step back and ask a bigger question,” he said, “and that is: How might my children have the most fulfilling and rewarding life possible?”

Since Angeline Tiamson, a graduate student in counseling at Lewis & Clark, took Dr. Doherty’s ecopsychology class last fall, she has embarked on a new way of thinking. Instead of shopping or joining her friends at a bar, she relaxes by taking long walks, even in the rain. She still studies in coffee shops, but now she sips tea from a pink steel cup she carries in her backpack.

When she is on campus, she drifts to the low, wide trunk of an old black walnut tree, a spot she found during a nature exercise for class. She sits there for several minutes: no iPod, no cellphone, no laptop. She rubs her hand over the bark, and sniffs the empty shells left behind by squirrels.

“You can’t have a good relationship with anything if you are afraid or feel guilty,” Ms. Tiamson said. “You have to love it first.”[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Published by Thomas Doherty

Psychologist Thomas Doherty's work on environmental sustainability and health has been featured in publications like the New York Times and in talks worldwide. Thomas consults with individuals and organizations through his business Sustainable Self. He was the founding Director of the Ecopsychology Certificate Program at Lewis & Clark Graduate School and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed academic journal Ecopsychology. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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