International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Media Matters: Treating a Global Illness

Posted 1 January 2008 in StressPoints by Mark Brayne

Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the December 2007 edition of Therapy Today, the journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. This edited version is published with permission of the Editor of Therapy Today.

As therapist to therapist, let me get straight to the point. I need some help with a couple of clients.

My first challenge is a mother of a certain age, indeed a grandmother and great-grandmother multiple times over. Wise, wrinkled and worn, she’s a tough old bird who over a very long life has survived a lot of ups and downs. Her problem now is her large and chaotic family who still live in her house and have nowhere else to move.

So far, she’s been the archetypal good enough mother, trying to teach her children by example and with the occasional slap on the wrist the consequences of unsustainable behaviour. But her family don’t get the plot. They have little idea of healthy boundaries, or hygiene, or the importance of delaying gratification. They eat and drink the fridge empty the minute she puts something in it, and they’re heating the house, and burning fuel and resources, like there’s no tomorrow, squabbling incessantly that all the mess is someone else’s fault.

Our elderly but previously robust client is finding it increasingly hard to cope, and she fears that her family’s dysfunction will be the end of all of them. We’re her therapist. What do we do?

So, to our second client – and I suspect you may be grasping by now where I’m taking us. This man is one representative member of our first client’s household who’s been told by doctors that if he doesn’t address his self-destructive behaviour – his smoking, his drinking, his addiction to fatty and sugary foods, his lack of exercise, his thinking only of his own immediate pleasure – then he’s going to die. Probably quite painfully and probably quite soon.

On the bright side, this client has listened to the doctors sufficiently to come into therapy. He’s perfectly intelligent, but his response is not untypical. Can’t be happening to me. Let’s get a second opinion. A third. A fourth. Perhaps if he tries minor adjustments to his lifestyle, he can avoid the radical surgery, the chemo- and radiotherapy, the massive life changes which the doctors say he must make.

As this client’s therapist, our dilemma is how to help him to realise that the doctors are right and that he really must change.

I guess you know by now who I’m talking about. Client one is of course Gaia, our Earth Mother, the planet we live on. Overcrowded, running out of resources, but above all heating up at potentially catastrophic speed as global warming gases build up in the atmosphere.

Our second client is ourselves – humankind. Desperate for that second, third, fiftieth scientific opinion which will tell us that the prognosis isn’t so bad. That maybe it’s not our fault. That maybe the earth just does heat up and cool down once in a while, quite naturally, that just some small adjustments will be enough, and that we’ll get through this.

We all want to be lied to about climate change. It’s just too big.

Right up front, then, my appeal in dealing with these two clients. How DO we calibrate the message that things, this time, really, honestly, are very serious? How do we avoid propelling our client straight from denial to despair? How DO we break this bad news?

There’s already good evidence that on matters of climate change, as the media and politicians begin to talk more of what is happening, people are swinging straight from ignorance and denial through alarm to numbing and weary boredom. You will have heard the arguments. The Greenies and other Cassandras have constantly got it wrong. The ozone layer, acid rain, nuclear power or nuclear winter, the Millennium Bug, and now this. Just another scare story. We just don’t want to listen any more. And anyway, there’s nothing we can do.

The truth is that if we – I personally, and you personally, as well as the Americans, the Chinese, the Indians, all of THEM out there – carry on living and consuming, driving, burning, thinking and just living as we currently do, and do not make massive changes very soon indeed, then human civilisation will end, if not in our own lifetimes then possibly as early as in those of our children or grandchildren. It’s that serious.

If catastrophe is be averted – and it’s important to use strong words - it won’t be enough just to drive a Prius hybrid, change our light bulbs to energy savers, or turn down the air conditioning. All those things must be done and much, much more. The arguments and the evidence are now clear, but for perhaps all-too understandable reasons of human psychology, the message is neither truly getting through or being acted on.

In a nutshell, the debate over whether climate change is happening, and whether it’s human-induced, is over. As therapists in particular, we now need to understand that bald scientific fact, confirmed in the plainest of language by the respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its fourth report last year and endorsed by last December’s international climate summit in Bali .

The only disagreements that matter are now about just how much time we have left to correct things, how to do that, and indeed whether it might already be too late. Scientists advising the IPCC talk of a window of less than 10 years to start making the massive global changes that might give humankind a chance of survival.

Let me pause for a brief moment. Are you, like our second client, finding this difficult to read and to hear? Is this something you don’t really want to know? In naming what’s happening in ordinary conversations, and with clients, I’m acutely aware how easily people can be shut down and put off. So the temptation is to sugar the pill, to focus on the opportunities rather than the threats.

But without a felt and not just a thought understanding of how urgent this is, will people really change? I fear not. So, please bear with me as we return to what’s actually now a very straightforward narrative.

In the space of less than 300 years, from the start of the industrial revolution to when very much later this century we might achieve a carbon neutral global economy, we are in the process of pumping back into the atmosphere, through the burning of oil, gas and coal, an amount of carbon which Gaia took 300 million years to capture. That’s a process one million times faster than that which laid those reserves down. Gaia managed for a while to absorb the extra, but she’s showing every sign of no longer being able to cope. She has a fever.

The consensus-driven, cautious and measured IPCC continues to argue in its latest report that the current trend of climate change can still be averted, as it puts it at reasonable cost. But for the first time, it is also now warning of the likelihood, if the world continues with business as usual, of “abrupt and irreversible impacts.”

So what has this got to do with therapy?

Let us consider again the clients with whom we opened, and the analogy of breaking bad news.

As any doctor is now trained, bad news – of the death of a loved one, for example, or of a terminal diagnosis – has to be conveyed with compassion and kindness, but also clearly, honestly and directly, without beating about the bush. The bearer of such news can’t make the fact of the message any less painful to the person receiving it. One does not amputate a leg in slices.

As a therapist, you may indeed already have had clients coming to you with fears of what climate change will mean, for themselves and especially for their grandchildren. How do you respond?

If as therapists and counsellors - or indeed as journalists writing that first draft of history - we presume to be at the leading edge of human consciousness, I believe we should prepare ourselves in three important ways.

We must first each take responsibility to inform ourselves of the simple science of what is happening, and consider our own denial and avoidance – and be ready to deal with the existential fears for ourselves and for those we love which will be revealed when do that.

Second, as therapists and as fellow human beings, we must seek to help our two opening clients – Gaia and her children – to work together to understand the threats that face them, and together empower both ourselves and those who govern us to make the choices and the radical changes that might yet avert the worst.

Third, some might wonder whether there’s any point in engaging with therapy if things are so bad. I think that’s wrong. Just as we would continue to work lovingly in a hospice, for example, with someone who is dying, we also need to work lovingly with each other and our clients as we openly address the meaning of climate change.

I am personally not optimistic, but we must still hope that a miracle cure or appropriate technological solutions may yet be found, or that we can help Gaia to mobilise her immune systems in time to stop the fever from killing us.

In addressing the dangers we now face as individuals, as families, as communities and as a species, we need to show realism, clarity and courage, but also congruence and compassion. Whatever the outcome.

 *** 
Mark Brayne is a former Reuters and BBC Foreign Correspondent now working as a transpersonal and EMDR psychotherapist specialising in trauma support and treatment for individuals and organisations in the news business and beyond. For the past six years, he has been Director, Europe of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma.