NPCE Event 2023: Psychotherapeutic and psychological expertise is needed to tackle climate crisis

On 18 April 2023, the Network for Psychotherapeutic Care in Europe’s (NPCE) symposium about the climate crisis and its impact on mental health took place digitally. Psychotherapists from all over Europe discussed how the climate crisis relates to mental illness, what contribution clinical psychologists and psychotherapists should make in the climate crisis, and how psychological or psychotherapeutic emergency care could be strengthened in climate-related natural disasters. BPtK Vice President Dr. Nikolaus Melcop noted that the effects of climate crisis were already noticeable throughout Europe, such as through periods of heat and drought or flooding, and that these events were also having an impact on mental health.

The climate crisis is a psychological crisis

For Friederike Schwarzkopf, psychotherapist and member of Psychologists/Psychotherapists for Future (Psy4F), the climate crisis is a psychological crisis. In her presentation, she outlined how psychologists and psychotherapists worldwide can support society to act in a more climate-friendly way. Psy4F educates about the effects of climate crisis, supports climate activists through psychotherapeutic interventions, participates in protest actions itself and writes publications on the climate crisis. One focus is also the development of psychotherapeutic services for coping with climate anxiety. The climate crisis and its effects are complex. This poses the risk that the dangers of the climate crisis are ignored, minimized, or even underestimated, so that opinions can sometimes vary greatly as to whether and how the need for action is assessed and which measures are considered necessary. At the same time, the climate crisis can also be perceived as a too big and seemingly insoluble problem. Activism and networking are important to generate awareness and change the society. From Psy4F's perspective, media coverage plays an important role in keeping the pressure for action high, but also in acknowledging concerns and fears associated with the climate crisis, as well as highlighting coping strategies. With their expertise, psychologists and psychotherapists can make an important contribution to overcoming the climate crisis. They can help to better understand the effects of the climate crisis on mental health and to strengthen coping strategies. The profession's voice is also important in supporting social change toward greater climate justice, she said. To this end, the profession should actively engage in societal discourse, advance the prevention of mental illness, including the formulation of guiding principles for a world that supports mental health. In addition, it is also important to further develop crisis interventions, to integrate the climate crisis and its consequences into education and trainings of the profession, and to advance research.

Constructing a sustainable renaissance

Alberto Zucconi, president of the Person Centered Approach Institute (IACP) in Rome and co-founder of the World Sustainability Forum (WSF), also highlighted that mankind is responsible for the climate crisis and action must be taken now to address its consequences. For far too long, the effects of planetary destruction by humans have been denied or not taken seriously. The climate crisis is a growing global threat. Clinical psychologists and psychotherapists must ask themselves whether they want to be part of the problem or part of the solution. It is not enough to focus only on the treatment of mental illnesses resulting from the climate crisis. Clinical psychologists and psychotherapists have to educate about the consequences of the climate crisis, because these are directly linked to mental health. In particular, eco-psychology should be more integrated into the profession's curricula. Clinical psychologists and psychotherapists are also important in helping communities better cope with changing realities. Zucconi promotes a bio-psycho-social-spiritual approach that focuses on the relationship and interaction between people and with nature. Respect, empathy, and the ability to form close bonds also allow people, communities, and cultures to feel connected to each other and to the planet. Clinical psychologists and psychotherapists can and should play an important role in shaping a "sustainable renaissance."

Regional psychological emergency in climate disasters

Portugal has established a psychological emergency service to support people in psychological crisis. Sónia Cunha, coordinator of the Portuguese Center for Psychological Support and Crisis Intervention (CAPIC), reported that four centers with a total of 24 clinical psychologists provide emergency psychological care to citizens nationwide 24 hours a day by telephone and also conduct outreach. She added that psychological crisis service is also of great importance during climate disasters, such as the devastating forest fires in Portugal in 2017. As part of the integrated medical emergency team, the psychological emergency service ensures that the psychological needs of the affected population are also met in addition to the medical needs in catastrophes. At the same time, one focus of their work is to help rescue forces to cope with their experiences and prevent post-traumatic stress disorders. As a result of the severe forest fires, the Portuguese Ministry of Health assembled a working group with the aim of identifying care needs and developing a concrete catalogue of measures. Thus, regional mental health crisis centers were introduced, as locally based mental health teams could meet the specific care needs in the region, can properly help strengthen resilience in communities and teach to cope with future disasters.

Commitment of the profession

The NPCE members reported that the challenges of the climate crisis on mental health are widely under discussion, including the role and professional duty of clinical psychologists and psychotherapists. The NPCE members expressed their support for climate action and commitment by the profession to address and cope with the climate crisis and its associated mental health threats. It is a professional duty to participate in the preservation and promotion of ecological and socio-cultural livelihoods with regard to people's mental health.