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If it wasn’t heartbreaking enough that the oil spill is fouling our nation’s waters and coasts, there is yet another toll — the suffering from afar as the oil spill fouls our nation’s psyche. Never before, and I have been a psychiatrist for more than 20 years, have I seen a phenomenon poison people psychologically the way this ghastly oil spill has.

Under ordinary circumstances our darkest and most sinister thoughts are buried deep in our unconscious. But troubling outside events can remind us of what is buried — “awakening” the nightmarish thoughts and allowing them to spill into our conscious awareness. So it is that the oil spill, with its disturbing themes and images - (in Greek mythology darkness and death are father and son) — choking off life, violating beauty, unresponsive to protests, rage, our efforts to stop it — is so much like the force of death itself. Some of us can handle the primitive thoughts that escape after such a throttling from real life events, but not everyone can. For some, the experience coalesces into crippling personal feelings of fear and defeat.

In a chain of associations starting with the spill, last week one patient of mine talked, for the first time, of various methods he would consider using to kill himself.

Eight days ago a respected and life long environmentalist and colleague of mine, committed suicide. Suicides are complicated, but we are sentient beings — events affect us. I can no more rule out the oil spill — on top of other conditions no doubt — as a potential final trigger than I would automatically rule out illness, financial problems or relationship issues.

Two personal experiences don’t make a trend. But ecoanxiety is real.

The psychological impacts of the climate crisis were discussed at a conference held in Washington DC last year. The conclusion was unequivocal: the consequences of climate change will exact a grievous toll on our mental health. From the floods, extinctions, fires, shortages, heat waves and all the rest — will come deepening anxiety, despair, guilt, fury at this generation and those in charge, as well as real threats to our national security by people whose rallying cry includes describing our carbon emissions as an international act of aggression. The group making the predictions included a Noble Prize winner and expert on biodiversity, a four star General, a renowned bioethicist, the head of the American Psychological Association, authorities on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the founder of Anxiety Disorders Association of America, a prominent climate scientist and other environmental and mental health experts.

One of the questions asked was, “How do we get people to listen?

We in the climate community agonize about messaging — “Maybe we are too gloomy...the public has Apocalypse Fatigue...we have to make it look fun to do the right thing...”

But not always matching the words with the intensity of our alarm can feel like we are only chatting or trying to jolly people into getting off the track of the train that is clearly bearing down on us.

And other messages aren’t sweetened to disguise dangers — we don’t hear people saying, for example, that it’s OK to drink and drive — “Hey — be optimistic — you might get there safely”. We warn with images of horrific accidents and present traumatized survivors to lecture. And if you are a teenager or a guilty driver you will be exposed to this repeatedly. Could never letting up be the solution?

And aren’t we furious when we find out that people like the engineers at the Deepwater Horizon oilrig, have downplayed the dangers?

The U.S. Senate in the next few weeks will take up the debate about a climate bill that will likely determine just how exposed Mother Nature and our own psyches will be to all the environmental provocations and years of dithering. Our elected officials need to know that, we the people, are becoming emotionally raw at all the posturing.

And to all those officials “outraged” at BP — and jabbing their fingers in the air on television - we in our living rooms want to know — What are you personally doing in your home and offices to reduce your energy needs? How many of you, up there on Capitol Hill — just for example — are wearing suits in this 90 degree Washington DC heat? Y’all wouldn’t be cranking up the air conditioners so you don’t get too hot now would you? Not too many air conditioners running on solar in these parts.

Then there are the rest of us. We care, but we need to have a good look in the mirror to examine our anguish. Have we taken all the steps we can to reduce our energy use?

It may make us feel good to go after the villains in this story.

But it would make us feel even better to work on making new heroes.

To help wildlife hurt by the oil spill log on to:

Originally published on Huffington Post

Tuesday, 06 July 2010 00:00

Moms United

Written by

One night about 25 years ago I woke at 4 o’clock in the morning and in a tormented voice asked myself “Where are my babies?” I suspect the question was as much biologic as psychological and I had just broken up with a boyfriend. I had a great life — I was in my 4th year of residency in psychiatry and had come from years living in Paris as a student and in Africa as a doctor. But it was time to settle down. I didn’t question why I wanted children.

I had my boyfriends over the years - but as for fathers - until I met my husband no one was suitable. I realized he was the one when at my first Passover dinner he playfully told a couple of nieces and nephews jumping at his side to name the states the broken pieces of matzo resembled.

In three years three children came into my life. I remember thinking that by the time I “woke up” from the experience I would be in my fifties. (I was right.) I clambered about not thinking very deeply about anything - aside from keeping up my practice (part time), my life was focused on keeping my children safe, and nurturing them to feel good about and be honest with themselves.

Until I became a Mom I never really appreciated what mothers do, how selfless they can be, for their children - sacrificing their careers, capacity to earn money, and personal time. If they worked out of the house they would often have two full time jobs. The school functioned and the kids grew up because of the moms - the cupcakes were baked, the stories read, the costumes made, the fights broken up, the stern talkings to about ethics, the lectures on doing homework, cleaning up a mess, giving a helping hand - whether they felt like it or not. Muddy field trips exploring nature and books read about the babies of other species - polar bears and penguins and frogs and butterflies... were opportunities not only to feel cuddly but also to introduce the moral message of caring about the larger world.

And other people’s children - who had their own food quirks and bruised feelings - had to be taken into account. This opened me up to respond beyond the welfare of my children.

The older I got, the more this mattered.

We got to know other parents and their kids to make sure they were hanging out with people we could trust.

The contentment and challenge of nurturing and protecting our babies and creating a community where it all could thrive was apparent.

My three children are now in college.

One night two weeks ago I woke at 4 o’clock in the morning and I heard myself ask again, “Where are my babies?”

I still have a wonderful life. But I squirmed - existential questions usually can’t be answered in the middle of the night. Being with the babies is a sweet time, a place to lose yourself in small spaces that feel safe and magical.

But it is what lies ahead that is the focus now, and it looms darkly, for more than one reason. And mine are not the only babies to think about.

In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler argues that all civilizations eventually fizzle out. Arnold Toynbee noted that civilizations decline when their leaders stop responding to problems creatively, and are tyrannized by a minority. In contrast, they grow when they devise solutions to great challenges - solutions that reorient the entire society.

As a doctor, educated in science, I believe it - with good reason - when climate scientists say that what we are doing to the earth with the way we are using energy is a catastrophe in slow motion.

I believe it when they tell me that all across the planet our children are threatened by climate change - floods, fires, diseases, food shortages. I believe it when I hear reports that in some water stressed areas children spend the day looking for water instead of going to school.

I believe it when the biologists say that the frogs and penguins, polar bears and birds and butterflies and the great places for field trips are at risk because of climate change. I believe it when the scientists give the statistics that show we are in a period of extinction, right now, that we have not seen in 65 million years!

To save our planet as we know it, a new kind of motherhood has to emerge. One that responds to the global threat to our children and that mobilizes us to action. If we want to make this house, our planet, a safe home, we will need every single mom on board, urgently.

When corporations that spew CO2 and other toxins into the air and water say there isn’t a problem, we need every single mom to say “Nonsense - Get a social conscience,” and stop buying their products.

When energy is being wasted we need every single mom to say, “Enough! - turn it down, or off,” and march in and make it happen if that’s the only way it will.

When politicians fail to take action or posture for reelection - ignoring the planetary emergency - we need every single mom to say “You’re done. Next up,” and support their opponent or run for the office yourself.

And when 2000 square miles of crude oil bears down on one of the most fertile ecosystems on earth, we need every single mom to say “How many more times?” and holler with the crowd demanding clean energy from the wind and sun.

Moms. We need to be all together on this... extending our hands to make this the most meaningful Mother’s Day ever: the day we stand up for the sisterhood in stewardship of our greatest collective effort ever, restoring the health of Mother Earth. In the choices we make - the products we use, the energy we consume, the climate conscious candidates we vote for and the actions we take - are we all a part of the creative solutions for the society wide transformation we so urgently need.

Where are the babies?

They are looking for us — to protect them. (Helping Other Moms Everywhere)

Originally published on Huffington Post

Are we safe yet?

With the thrill at the ballsy taking out of bin Laden last week, the sobering questions about what awaits us have returned. Will new leaders emerge from the franchise cells? Is this the beginning of the end for al Qaeda? Some say we are at great risk in the short term.

Predicting the threats from terrorist groups, alas, is not a science. And for all ordinary citizens may worry, it’s not in our hands.

But al Qaeda and OBL types are not the main problem.

Were it not for our obliviousness, it would be good news that predicting the threat of our main problem is based on science, and protecting us from it is in our hands.

Already in April 2007, 11 retired Generals and Admirals were warning us:

General Gordon R. Sullivan: USA (Ret.) Former Chief of Staff, U.S. Army 
Admiral Frank “Skip” Bowman: USN (Ret.) Former Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program; Former Deputy Administrator-Naval Reactors, National Nuclear Security Administration
Lieutenant General Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.: USAF (Ret.) Former Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, Headquarters U.S. Air Force
Vice Admiral Paul G. Gaffney II,: USN (Ret.) Former President, National Defense University; Former Chief of Naval Research and Commander, Navy Meteorology and Oceanography Command
General Paul J. Kern: USA (Ret.) Former Commanding General, U.S. Army Materiel Command
Admiral T. Joseph Lopez: USN (Ret.) Former Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and of Allied Forces, Southern Europe
Admiral Donald L. “Don” Pilling: USN (Ret.) Former Vice Chief of Naval Operations
Admiral Joseph W. Prueher: USN (Ret.) Former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) and Former U.S. Ambassador to China
Vice Admiral Richard H. Truly: USN (Ret.) Former NASA Administrator, Shuttle Astronaut and the first Commander of the Naval Space Command
General Charles F. “Chuck” Wald: USAF (Ret.) Former Deputy Commander, Headquarters U.S. European Command 
General Anthony C. “Tony” Zinni: USMC (Ret.) Former Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Central Command

They have appeared before Congress to talk about the most serious threat facing us.

“We will pay for this one way or another”, General Zinni has said.

Climate change ... is a serious risk factor for triggering massive migrations, increased border tensions, greater demands for rescue and evacuation efforts, and conflicts over essential resources, including food and water — that could ultimately lead to direct U.S. military involvement.

“In the long term, we want to address the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit,” Admiral Lopez says. “But climate change will prolong those conditions. It makes them worse.”

A secret Pentagon document from the Office of Net Assessment “outed” in 2004 warned that global warming ...was a bigger threat to America’s national security than terrorism.

The answer to the question of whether we will be safe in the future? It all depends on us. And what we do about our carbon emissions.

As a psychiatrist with more than 20 years of experience, I know that smart, good people may not use common sense. I have seen the consequences. Common sense is a capacity emanating from the frontal lobes, an area of the brain lying behind the forehead. The frontal lobes take raw data and wild messages from every corner of the brain (e.g. me first, right now, who cares) and turns them into appropriate, measured, considerate messages that “talk us” into good decisions. It is our own internal “situation room,” weighing the pros and cons and determining best strategies for right now and long into the future. How people are affected by our decisions is a top consideration. MRIs showthat the frontal lobes of teenagers are slow to “fill in.” Parents in the face of particularly stupid, dangerous, or otherwise egregious behaviors from their teenagers know this from the blank look they get after shrieking what were you thinking. They weren’t thinking anything, really. Not much is going on in their frontal lobes.

As I listen to the conversation about our national security in the light of recent events, I can’t help thinking about frontal lobes and common sense.

Americans make up 5 percent of the world’s population. We put up 25 percent of the world’s green house gases. The floods and droughts, wildfires and extreme weather events that were not so long ago predicted are now upon us. Nuclear-armed Pakistan saw 20 million people displaced by massive flooding. The fires in Russia last year blew out the wheat crop, causing food prices to skyrocket, triggering massive rioting by people who spend most of their income on food. Australia has been besieged by floods and droughts. 240 of the 242 counties in Texas report fires, two weeks ago 340 people diedin the worst spate of tornadoes the U.S. has ever seen. Now the Mississippi River is reaching the highest levels of flooding in history.

No respected expert doubts the links to climate change.

As the global situation darkens from the ravages of climate change, what will the world think of us? What will we think of ourselves? At an African Union summit the President ofUganda said, “”We have a message here to tell these countries, that you are causing aggression to us by causing global warming.” In Bolivia, after the second year in a row of rains so heavy massive flooding caused deaths and widespread destruction, President Morales blamed global warming and said those countries who were driving up green house gases and didn’t pay for the damage would be sued in international court.

“Unstable governments are at risk of failing and falling into the hands of terrorists,” warns Lt. General Dan Christman. “As the U.S. military looks ahead to the likely causes of war in the next 30 years, global warming is front and center.”

From NASA, the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Dr. James Hansen says: “We have already gone too far. We must draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide ... time is running out.”

As I listened to the talking heads reporting on what was happening in Abbottabad, I thought about these generals and admirals and scientists and wondered why we aren’t making more of an effort to get THEM on TV? 

The daring and courage of last week is in a category by itself.

But we will never be safe if we are giving terrorist groups a new recruiting message with global warming.

Enough with balls. We need to grow some frontal lobes.

Originally published on Huffington Post

As we pay tribute to the American worker on the 119th celebration of Labor Day, how can we show we are truly grateful?

American workers have built the greatest democracy the world has ever known — bringing health, prosperity, and freedom to our communities.

They have also built something even more sacred — pride in who we are, and what our country represents.

Our spirits are lifted too, as we crawl out from under the recent painful recession.

But some dark realities swirl around us.

Unemployment is still at 7.4 percent.

America’s middle class, the backbone of our country, is shrinking.

A small percentage of people, in whose hands so much money and power are concentrated, is increasingly calling the shots — not necessarily with the long term and best interests of the country in mind.

Nowhere is that reality more dangerous to America than in the energy sector.

Though every day we are pounded with unrelenting news about fires, floods, high temperatures, parched lands, and devastating storms — and reminded of the connections to man made climate change from burning fossil fuels, still being proposed are energy projects that if built, would only make these catastrophes worse.

While way too many examples exist, a focal point of this disconnect is the current campaign to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Though it would create a few jobs, mostly temporary ones, the pipeline, and other projects extracting or using fossil fuels, are destroying us. They are compromising our health, our ecosystems, our national security, and worst of all, our sense of pride.

Are jobs from projects like this any way to treat the American worker?

While industry insiders promise economic gains from the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels — who, in good conscience can gloss over the costs? Even the short-term costs of cleaning up from weather disasters are overwhelming: the bill for Superstorm Sandy ALONE, whose intensity climate scientist correlate with global warming, is upwards of $70 billion dollars. And that doesn’t count the human misery.

As the world heats up, so does the realization that we must act quickly. The jobs that protect our planet — putting up solar, building wind farms, insulating buildings, greening roofs, forging steel for rail — are here.

The coal, oil and gas titans will put up a fight, twisting the arms of politicians, writing messages that deceive the public. But they won’t win. And no fig leaf of donations to museums, colleges and the like is big enough to hide the self-interest that generates the injustices.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36

Every major religion in the world declares that we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the earth.

As we reflect on this Labor Day, in the context of a world desperate for leadership on climate, let us show authentic gratitude to the American worker by vowing that we will do all we can to ensure that none of us has to choose between a pay check, our dignity and the safety of the planet. To those who would request the privilege of representing us in office: tell us where your stand on the energy policies that guarantee jobs we can be proud of and we will act accordingly at the polls.

Eric Chivian, M.D. Associate, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University; Founder and Director, Emeritus, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School
Deborah Fikes, Executive Advisor/ World Evangelical Alliance
Dr. James Hansen, former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Adjunct Professor of Earth Sciences, Columbia University
Lise Van Susteren, M.D. for IMAC (Interfaith Moral Action on Climate), Forensic Psychiatrist: Member of the Board: National Wildlife Federation

Originally published on Huffington Post

I am a doctor. A psychiatrist. Over the years I have heard many troubling stories about the human condition. I have worked with individuals who were “on the ledge” emotionally. I have worked with people who fantasize about killing people, and some who have. I have listened to people recount being tortured, abused. I have evaluated the psychological states of foreign leaders who threaten world security. I have heard the details about children who have died at the hands of people who were out of their minds with drugs or illness. People have died in my arms, dropped dead at my feet.

Nothing has prepared me for what I am currently hearing: scientists all over the world warning us about the threat of catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

As a member of several organizations that involve professionals working in the field of mental health, I am stunned that this threat to the health of the planet and the public is so underplayed by these organizations and their members. An official from one leading organization expressed regrets that she was unable to attend a recent forum wrestling with the psychological and mental health aspects of climate change and noted, “no one on the staff is interested.” The person she anointed in her place cancelled.

One of the missions of these associations is to relieve human suffering. As practitioners we help people to face reality. We chip away at their denial knowing it can be a cover for behaviors that destroy their lives. When they see the world more clearly, we urge them to take charge - warning of the dangers of being passive.

Scientists every day are telling us that climate change is happening far faster than anyone had predicted and that the magnitude of the problem is unfathomable. “We have an emergency,” warns NASA scientist James Hansen. “People don’t know that. Continued ignorance and denial could make tragic consequences unavoidable.”

Why are the organizations and their members, those most skilled at exposing the danger of denial and destructive behaviors, so silent about this crisis? Are they in denial themselves? Surely the science isn’t disputed. Surely we don’t believe that destroying life on our planet is “not our problem.”

Our canon of ethics says we have a duty to protect the public health and to participate in activities that contribute to it.

Where, then, are the journal articles, the committee reports, the mission statements, action plans, letters to the editor, presentations, etc that attest to the gravity of what we are hearing? Where are the recommendations that show how to break through denial and get people to change - quickly? Are we not the very organizations to seize upon warnings and confront the world before it is too late?

We see through resistance, excuses, faulty reasoning. We “get” urgency, we “get” life-long consequences. We see the anger, anxiety and depression caused by the mistakes and shortcomings of a previous generation. We know about trauma from repeated exposure to horrifying events. We are trained, indeed we are ethically bound, to respond to emergencies.

What are we waiting for?

We are already seeing wildfires, floods, sea level rise, storms, droughts, risks to our national security, and a mass extinction.

Lethal global overheating - strike the innocuous sounding “global warming” - is not something that may happen in the next century or even mid-century - it is happening now.

All of us, urgently and collectively, have a duty to warn our patients, co-workers, families, neighbors, friends. We have a duty to act - within our professional organizations, in our communities, offices and homes. Climate scientists are desperately trying to tell us to reduce our carbon emissions - to stop building new coal plants, to switch to clean renewable energy, to embrace energy efficiency - to “pay any price, bear any burden.”

Mental health professionals vigorously endorse requirements to report cases of child abuse. It is a legal obligation, but it is also a moral one.

Is it any less compelling a moral obligation, in the name of all children now and in the future, to report that we are on track to hand over a planet that may be destroyed for generations to come?

I respectfully request that we, as mental health professionals, make a unified stand in support of actions to reduce the threat of catastrophic climate change.

Originally published in Huffington Post