Distress over climate change is described in a cluster of related terms such as “climate anxiety,” “eco-anxiety,” “eco-paralysis,” and “climate grief,” all of which could be considered psychoterratic syndromes. The term “psychoterratic,” coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, refers to mental conditions arising from our relationship with the natural world. One so-called psychoterratic syndrome is solastalgia, another term coined by Albrecht. The word “solastalgia” joins the Latin word for comfort with the Greek word meaning pain. It refers to the distress one experiences when a well-known environment has changed and no longer offers the same solace. It is a kind of nostalgia one can feel while still at home, an experience of loss that can be very difficult to put into words.8
The concept of solastalgia is gaining a research base. A qualitative study of Great Lakes residents, using semi-structured psychoanalytic interviews of the residents, documented in their descriptions of their relationship with their environment an “arrested mourning.” Interestingly, these study subjects were individuals who were not particularly environmentally active.9
Place-based distress has also been documented in Australian family farmers, and in Australian residents of an area changed by mining.10 A quantitative study of emergency room visits in Kentucky suggested a greater risk of depressive and substance use disorders in areas where there was mountain top removal mining, a process that drastically changes the landscape.11 The study controlled for other demographic factors such as socioeconomic status.
Another proposed psychoterratic syndrome is the so-called nature deficit disorder, a term coined by the journalist, Richard Louv, best known for his book, Last Child in the Woods. He defines nature deficit disorder as the human costs of alienation from nature, claiming that there is a “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of emotional and physical illness” as a result of our being alienated from nature.
There is some support for this concept. There are many documented salutary effects of nature exposure, including effects relevant to psychiatric disorders and treatment, such as effects on attention, rumination, and social bonding. This topic of the mental health benefits of involvement in the natural world will be explored in a future article in this climate series.
A growing psychoanalytic literature is also exploring our relationship to climate change. In addition to other psychoanalysts, Sally Weintrobe, a British psychoanalyst, editor of the book Engaging with Climate Change, has recognized that climate change can be seen as a developmental issue. As Weintrobe describes it, just as in the development of the small child, we are collectively seeking to move from a relationship with nature as a “breast and toilet mother” to a more mature relationship where we recognize that Mother Earth has limits.12
Dr Lewis is Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Rochester, NY, and in private practice in Penn Yan and Ithaca, NY.
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