Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed. – Mahatma Gandhi
My epiphany came a dozen or so years ago, soon after my third grandchild was born. I was sent to the corner grocery for some supplies. As I was checking out, the clerk asked: “Paper or plastic”? Usually, my answer came quickly, but not this time. I froze. Finally, I muttered “neither,” grabbed the items, and left, shaken.
Later that day, I wondered what had happened? What was the right answer? Did my professional work as a community psychiatrist have anything to do with this community interaction?
The answer to plastic or paper was easy to find out. Bring your bag was obviously the best for the environment. But the relevance of psychiatry was unclear. Other than immediately following a natural disasters, psychiatrists tend not to think about our natural environment much. Sure, I had heard a little about global warming and climate change, but we psychiatrists and organized psychiatry did not seem concerned at that time, even if human behavior was the main causative factor.
Yet, if this experience had something to do with my grandchildrens’ future, I needed to keep looking. I learned from the other mental health disciplines such as psychology, which were already trying to help. Slowly, but surely, other psychiatrists and psychiatry joined in. I founded the informal Psychiatrists for Environmental Action & Knowledge (PEAK), which later morphed into the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA). We now know that the climate and many other environmental problems are indeed of psychiatric relevance.
About a generation ago, there was a call for psychiatrists and organized psychiatry to pay attention to how our ecology affected health and mental health. We even prayed for it at the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Annual Meeting in 1985 when the psychiatrist and minister E. Mansell Pattison offered a prayer to open the meeting.
This focus on ecology followed a focus on the subject by the American Psychiatric Association in the late 1970s. During that time, the APA established a Task Force to examine what we knew about the relationship of the environment to mental health and illness, using the term “ecopsychiatry.” Interest then waned and several decades passed when nothing much happened. About 10 years ago, spurred by societal attention to climate change, ecology got the attention of psychiatry once again.
Dr Moffic is retired from clinical work and his tenured professorship at the Medical College of Wisconsin in 2019, but he continues to write, his latest book is Combating Physician Burnout: A Guide for Psychiatrists. He is on the editorial board of Psychiatric Times.
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