Committee to the UN

Knowing and Not Knowing About Climate Change: ISSTD’s UN Committee Participate in Innovative Mental Health Webinar

In February 2022, ISSTD co-sponsored a United Nations affiliated presentation organized by the NGO Committee on Mental Health.  Karen Hopenwasser,  Co-Chair of the ISSTD UN Committee and Co-Convener of the Trauma Working Group of the NGO Committee on Mental Health organized the event, “Knowing and Not Knowing about the Climate Crisis: Through the Lens of Trauma and Dissociation”.  Emily Christensen and Eva Young were also in attendance.  

Dr Hopenwasser’s opening presentation introduced the role of dissociation in knowing about climate change, a process often overlooked in discussions about trauma. She emphasized that “awareness” in one state of mind does not mean awareness in other states of mind, and that this is true for all of us.  She spoke about relational trauma and historical trauma in communities, and described continued use of fossil fuels as industrial violence against all life on the planet.  She also referenced the narcissism of industrialized societies that can be shown through a lack of empathy for others, the lack of caring about the experience of other sentient beings on this planet, and the blatant disregard for indigenous knowledge in caring for each other, other species, and the planet.

She also shared two movie trailers as recommendations.   The first one for “Don’t Look Up”  and the second was for “Once You Know”.

The theme of “Once You Know” resonates directly with our work in the realm of dissociative adaptation, i.e. once you know about the violence, how do you live with the pain?  

She spoke about how being present and aware of what is actually happening can occur in ways that are tolerable, and coming together as a community in awareness is empowering.  

The second speaker was Irit Felsen, who briefly shared about the history of traumatic stress in times of combat, from the context of WWI and WWII and then Vietnam.  She emphasized how the “stress reaction” diagnosis was deleted from DSMII just as soldiers were returning from Vietnam, which complicated treatment efforts.   She talked about this as an example of clinical dissociation. 

Felsen also spoke about how addressing trauma is difficult, both personally and professionally, that trauma diagnoses continue to be misunderstood, and too often pushed aside, because of our own defenses. She outlined how we don’t want to know what we know – as clinicians or as people, and how this is also an example of dissociation.  She talked about how the scientific method replaced religion as the “way to know”, so now when we don’t want to know, we also have less spiritual and cultural connection because we are already dissociated from some layers of our own experience.  We stay more comfortable by believing that “this could not happen to me”.

The next speaker was Sally Weintrobe, who is a British psychoanalyst and on the UN Climate Committee.  She challenged us with the question of “What is so unbearable?”  Weintrobe went on to point out that the implications of what we know (about the climate change and our own role in causing the crisis) literally points to collapse: that if we become overwhelmed and collapse internally, nothing changes, and our lives collapse, but if we respond with change externally, then our lives as we know it collapse.  Life is not the same, either way.  

Weintrobe said that the collapse of civilization always follows a collapse of agriculture, and that this has already begun.  She also felt that while most people know climate change is a real event, for many this does not yet impact them severely. However, it is still happening, and she felt that people don’t understand, or want to see, and don’t have capacity to “get” (because of dissociation) that this will literally impact their own lifetimes, not just the lives of their children or grandchildren. It’s not something happening “later”; it’s something happening already.  

Weintrobe also pointed out we cannot assume that the human mind can bear all things. In fact, minds really can’t bear all things, and that’s why we dissociate.  She felt that educators and leaders need to consider what “small chunks” they can give to people so that they can tolerate what they are hearing without becoming unbearably dysregulated.  She felt that we cannot live anymore by hiding from trauma or avoiding it; we have to learn how to live with it and cope with it.  In Weintrobe’s perspective, this is not just about fighting climate change, but also creating a culture of kindness and tending to each other as we cope with the horror of what is happening in climate, politics, and economics – and the threats posed for all of humanity.  She shared a quote from a child who said that they don’t want to grow up in a world that doesn’t care about women and children.  She said we need to listen to indigenous people and children. She particularly referenced an important global study about climate anxiety in children and young people. This study, published in The Lancet is open access and available here.

Weintrobe also spoke about how there is even ‘dissociation by association’ which she defined as associating facts together and giving yourself an illusion that you can change your choices just enough that other people will fix the problem. She outlined the trauma experienced by people who eventually realize that we live within a fraudulent system that gives false reassurance without making effective changes.  Facing reality, for Weintrobe, is more than just facing reality and falling into despair. She says that we cannot actually make changes without giving up privilege.  She said privilege is a culture that encourages us to dissociate from the part of ourselves that really cares.  This, like war, is moral injury – because the very way we live our lives (abusing the environment, living as if there is no limit) is actually violating our deeper understanding of what’s decent.  We wake up realizing we are both perpetrators and victims of politics, economy, culture, and climate.  There is also a layer of moral injury in that we leave the suffering to “others”, the suffering ones (who are not us).  Another layer of moral injury is that we leave the burden of awareness to scientists and activists, but also don’t respond to their calls for change.  She said healing comes when we get in touch with the children within ourselves, who want to live in a world that is safe, where they are heard, and where issues are responded to in real ways. (Those interested in exploring these concepts further may be interested in Weintrobe’s most recent book Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis).

The final speaker was Mary Roessel.  She spoke about “Centering Indigenous Knowledges Through Rematriation to Adapt and Heal the Climate Crisis”.  She is a  Navajo integrative psychiatrist and introduced herself in the Navajo language and offered the land acknowledgment out of respect, including addressing the historical trauma of being forcibly removed from the land.  She shared the story of her grandfather who experienced removal from his land through forced migration and then being made to attend an indigenous boarding school. She talked about how “settlers” think of land as money and property, but for indigenous people, land is identity, connection to ancestors, pharmacy, library, etc.  She shared a quote from Kimmerer: 

“Children, language, lands: almost everything was stripped away, stolen when you weren’t looking because you were trying to stay alive. In the face of such loss, one thing our people could not surrender was the meaning of land. In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold. These are the meanings people took with them when they were forced from their ancient homelands to new places.”

― Robin Wall Kimmerer, from the book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants”

Roessel concluded by telling us that we must listen to each other, to Mother Earth, to the other species that live here… and also to ourselves.  Rematriation, she says, is a return to our spiritual selves and a matriarchal society.  She said asking questions, caring for other another, and listening to children are all examples of this effort.  It is centered on love, healing, caring, and restoring harmony.  It is about restoring our relationships with Mother Earth and Father Sky.  It is a recentering on the feminine where life and love and relationships live.  It is honoring our matriarchs and tending to our children (and being sure they are safe).  She said that we are dissociated any time we are not connected to ourselves, each other, land, water, or others who also live under the sky.  She said it is sharing our stories and listening to the stories of others.  She closed with a Navajo blessing.

For those interested in watching the presentations, here is a link to the video from the UN meeting

On May 16, 2022 the ISSTD UN Committee also co-sponsored a Webinar entitled Uprooted:   The Mental Health Impacts of Climate Displacement, moderated by Thimali Kodikara,  Co-host of The Mothers of Invention Podcast.  As a speaker in this webinar Karen Hopenwasser addressed mental health issues for climate refugees from the perspective of trauma informed mental health awareness.   

The webinar can be seen through this link: