In my 20 years as a social worker, I have worked with veterans suffering from PTSD due to traumatic events in the distant past, and with first responders following traumatic events experienced just an hour earlier. Their stories have given me a keen sense of how psychologically traumatic events, even discrete ones, can have an impact on one’s long-term mental health.
Addressing psychological trauma early, using protocols such as critical incident stress management (CISM), has been shown to mitigate the risk of PTSD and other long-term morbidity. Of course, treatment is determined based on a diagnosis or the knowledge that lack of intervention can lead to chronic mental health issues. Although those who have experienced acute psychological trauma can suffer from long-term debilitating effects such as PTSD, depression, and substance abuse, they do have one advantage: a recognized diagnosis.
Environmental impacts, whether perceived or actual, can elicit analogous traumatic responses. This dictates the need for a new diagnosis, one that I refer to as ecological stress disorder, or ESD. More than just fear of environmental demise, ESD encompasses the psychological effects of what many experience on a daily basis: the child who is devastated to see his backyard forest clear-cut for another highway; community residents distressed that their water is tainted by unknown pollutants from hydraulic fracturing; the individual who obsesses over recycling and energy conservation; the parent who worries how a changing climate will impact her children and grandchildren; or the Inuits who witness their permafrost-based lives melting away more each year.
All these people have one thing in common: a visceral emotional response associated with an actual or perceived degradation of their environment. And while most individuals may present only minor symptoms of what I call ESD, their suffering is a direct consequence of environmental degradation that deserves such a formal diagnosis.
As a writer and speaker on environmental justice and technology, I have presented to groups across the country. I have heard the emotional distress of many who have expressed both sadness and frustration over the current disregard for the environment, as well as anxiety over the specter of climate change. There is also a pervasive feeling of social isolation in professing care for the environment, in a “culture of consumerism” that values profit over the common good. Some feel a lack of control over being able to solve climate change; some are threatened for even “believing” in it, at least in the U.S., as if basic physics and chemistry are matters of opinion.
Is the anxiety, grief, and depression that these people experience about their environment, their life, their community, and their planet simply a manifestation of a transient news report today that will become a non-issue tomorrow? Or is it a real mental health problem worthy of attention among the professional community? A clear awareness of this threat to mental health can help us recognize and respond to it.
Michael Wright is an author and licensed social worker.