To Address Climate Change, This Psychiatrist Goes Where No One Has Gone Before

Psychiatry and inner space—closer than you think.

balloons

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PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS

In my November 15, 2022, column, “I SCREAM for More Climate Action!” I bemoaned the slowness of society and psychiatry to help reduce climate change and instability. I asked for creative ways to obtain climate attention. I found one by serendipity.

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While writing what became the column “A Day of Launching Dreams and Nightmares,” I had CNN on in the background. I was catching a bit about someone who was flying balloons around the earth to save fossil fuel. Then he was being interviewed and I stopped writing to listen. To my great surprise, he was also identified as a Swedish psychiatrist: Bertrand Piccard, MD. I had never heard of him.

The last name of Piccard may remind some of the 1980s TV series of “Star Trek—The Next Generation,” where Patrick Stewart played Captain Picard (with 1 c), with the slightly revised introductory phrase: “where no one has gone before.” The “Star Trek” use of the last name was in honor of the 3 generations of Piccards who have been renowned adventurers. In 1999, Bertrand made history with the first nonstop balloon flight around the world, topping that in 2016 when he did the same with a solar-powered airplane.

Dr Piccard’s conclusion was that renewable energy can be harnessed to achieve seemingly impossible goals. To help that occur, he founded the Solar Impulse Foundation to jumpstart numerous alternative energy projects.

Intermittently, among all these adventures, he not only continued to practice psychiatry, but realized that applying psychiatric principles about inner space was essential to his success in outer space.

He turned some of these psychiatric principles into what he felt were universal aphorisms:

“You must overcome the past by doing something in the present that helps you in the future.”

In his clinical work, he encouraged patients to build confidence through novel experiences. The ensuing aphorism, applicable to both patients and the public, is:

“Routine is more dangerous than adventure.”

In his outer space explorations, he came to realize how fragile our planet is to be able to maintain human life. Because his personal revelation came in such a unique situation, he felt that to attract a large audience, he needed to be inspiring. Once again, the psychiatric perspective was a key:

“My experience as a psychiatrist is that you have to speak the language of the people you want to convince. . . I had to tell them something that would wake them up.”

As the New Yorker portrait,1 and his Ted Talks strikingly convey, Piccard can be a model for what we in psychiatry can contribute uniquely to our climate and environmental challenges. As he maintains, outer and inner space can be usefully explored using the same principles!

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

Reference

1. Taub B. Bertrand Picard’s Laps Around the World. The New Yorker. October 3, 2022. Accessed November 28, 2022. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/10/10/bertrand-piccards-laps-around-the-world

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