Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room


When Ms. Black first met Dr. Doherty on video last fall, she was greeted by a large, glossy image of evergreens.

At the age of 56, he is one of the most prominent climate experts in psychotherapy and hosts a podcast called “Climate Change and Happiness.” Aside from the more conventional approaches to treating anxiety such as cognitive behavioural therapy, he also employs less common approaches such as existential therapy, which aims to help people overcome their feelings of hopelessness, and ecotherapy, which examines the client’s relationship to the natural world.

After graduating from Columbia University, he hitchhiked across the country to work on fishing boats in Alaska, then as a whitewater rafting guide — “the whole Jack London thing” — and as a Greenpeace fund-raiser. He didn’t take the typical path to psychology. He found “ecopsychology” to be a natural fit when he entered graduate school in his 30s.

In the early 1990s, ecopsychology was a “woo-woo area,” as he put it, with his colleagues delving into shamanic rituals and Jungian deep ecology at the time. Dr. Doherty, on the other hand, focused more on the physiological effects of anxiety, which was more conventional. The idea that people could be affected by environmental decay even if they weren’t directly involved in a disaster was new at the time.

Recent studies have shown conclusively that this is the case. The Lancet published a study last month that found shockingly high levels of pessimism among young adults aged 16 to 25 in ten countries. Concerns about climate change negatively affected nearly half of those surveyed, according to a new poll. “The future is frightening,” and “humanity is doomed” were two of the most popular responses.

Dr. Clayton said that the impact on young people’s confidence appears to be more severe than with previous threats, such as nuclear war. “Climate change is described as an existential threat,” she said. “We’ve certainly faced big problems before.” A basic sense of security is undermined by it.”

After graduating from graduate school in 2016, Caitlin Ecklund, 37, a therapist in Portland, Oregon, was surprised to find that nothing in her training had prepared her to help the young women who came to her expressing hopelessness and grief over climate change. Her first encounters with him were viewed as “misses” by her.