It’s all happening too fast to effectively dialogue about. The virus that lingers . . . the suffering from fires, floods, and hurricanes . . . species lost and human communities displaced . . . the Earth speaking back to careless human greed? Or is it that pointed and awful?
Welcome to our big world of worry now. Around the edges of crisis after crisis, new terms have been coming to the fore—evocative words, sometimes poetic, often cumbersome–but downright chilling. They describe emotional responses as we face dire planetary events.
None of these words are easy to hear: they call for a new view of the anxiety, grief and despair generated when a person feels overwhelmed by current events. Listen to these up-and-coming words with me because I would like to ask you something.
Ecocide may be the most familiar of the bunch. Environmental destruction, but with a sinister twist: “willfully done.” Some wish “ecocide” as act and fact could be formally designated an international crime. Think genocide, infanticide, suicide…this use of the prefix “eco”—often attached to denote something “green” and feel-good—makes me shudder.
The next pair, I promise, is not all dark. As an informal term, scientists call our epoch the Anthropocene (Greek for “recent age of man”). We’re in the current geologic interval when humans make a significant impact across the earth’s surface, oceans, atmosphere and chemical cycles—dated from 1950 to ongoing. Its more hopeful descendant waiting to be born is the Symbiocene epoch when humans and nature finally reconcile.
Glenn Albrecht is a thinker generating this kind of vocabulary so bizarre my head spins: “positive psychoterratic states such as topophilia and biophilia and . . . new concepts of soliphilia, sumbiophilia, endemophilia and eutierria.” Wait—what?
Solastalgia (kin to nostalgia) is the most well-known Albrecht creation: the distress caused by environmental change that you yourself have personally lived through. Drought, hurricane, open-cut coal mining, devastating wildfires . . . he says it’s “the feeling of being homesick while still at home and the landscape you love changes, often for the worse.”
And there’s terrafurie: “a form of anger explicitly directed at those who maintain the social and political status quo and do nothing to stop the Earth from being destroyed by humans.” I know this one too well.
Here’s one we can likely all relate to: pre-traumatic stress, commonly known among soldiers about to be deployed into combat. It is now used to characterize the anxiety of activists working on the front lines, for example, to reverse climate change.
But this one also goes beyond climate-related stress. Those gun-sense advocates holding their breath before the next school shooting come to mind. BIPOC communities have always lived with pre-traumatic stress, for no one believes that fear of hate-crimes and state-inflicted racial violence is a mind-sick delusion, no—it is a collectively borne suffering in those communities. Not to mention how environmental injustice being the worst in neighborhoods of color compounds the shared dread.
How do these new words strike you? Do they add to your allostatic load? That’s the wear and tear on your nervous and endocrine systems from chronic stress. Do you think these malaises will ever become bonafide mental-health diagnoses? Should they? Or are they the word play of philosophers, leading us creatively into thinking about Earth and emotions, but to what end?
How should the mental-health establishment respond to these feelings we have—with therapy and drugs, that don’t validate feelings about the tangible dangers that unfold planet-wide?
From new words to simple words anyone can understand . . . on a bumper sticker! I put it on my car because the stark yet comforting message grabbed me: “We Are All in This Together.” Next to a graphic of Earth floating in black space, I hoped it was the perfect line to reach anyone on the road, no matter their views. So when I saw an article on mental health and coronavirus with the same title as my bumper sticker, I had to dive in.
Lucy Johnstone is a British critic of the way we do mental-health matters in the Western world. She challenges us to re-examine concerns about a pandemic-related, mental health crisis that experts warn us will come. Yes, folks are anxious, sleepless, feeling trapped and depressed. But be careful, she says, of how this is likely to be handled. COVID-19 is extracting widespread terror and feelings of helplessness because the disease causes “an entirely rational response to a major threat to our whole way of life . . . as a species.” Doesn’t sound like mental illness to me. Sounds like my bumper sticker: we are all in this together. Says Ms. Johnstone:
The more we label our understandable human reactions as mental health problems or disorders, the greater the temptation to focus on individual “treatments” instead—whether psychiatric or psychological/therapeutic. I have seen both groups eagerly priming themselves to receive all the new customers created by the crisis… [Johnstone, as a Psy.D, speaks as an insider.]
Instead of uniting us in solidarity, diagnostic labels isolate and silence us, and give us the message that we are not coping as we should be able to…
Diagnostic labels and the “mental health” discourse actually prevent us from dealing with the wider reasons for our distress, by disconnecting our responses from the threats.
Yes, but what about real compassion and the need to address our burdensome feelings? Dr. Johnstone says: focus on the pandemic through communities of action, support, networking, friendships, and mutual care. Recognize the pandemic is the problem, come together with one another.
We are going to have to face the fact that this outbreak was not only predicted, but it is also the direct outcome of rampant and thoughtless industrialization and its pressure on animal habitats, driving them closer to us, exposing us to microbes unfriendly. Yes, the pandemic is our fault, collectively—not that of the furtive Chinese or the filthy bat. A chief official at the United Nations spells it out here. Now—how can we, together, fix the problem and heal? Says Johnstone:
Only a few weeks ago, someone who was too scared to leave the house in case they contracted a fatal disease, and spent most of the day washing their hands and wiping down doorknobs, would have been regarded as having a severe case of “OCD.” Now it is the description of a responsible citizen [in the early days of Covid]…Never was it more obvious that distress makes sense in context. Abnormal situations lead to unusual or extreme responses. If we are fearful, then so we should be.
Healthcare staff may be deeply shaken by the suffering they saw, but we don’t have to call it an outbreak of “PTSD.” People who have lost their jobs are likely to feel desperate, but we don’t have to describe this as “clinical depression” and prescribe drugs for it. The economic recession that will follow the pandemic may lead to as many suicides as austerity measures did, but we don’t have to say that “mental illness” caused these deaths.
What do therapists really think about the new cache of created words and phrases looked at here that describe ways in which we’re falling apart over world events? My bottom line is that no matter how compassionate or evocative, we don’t need new labels in the DSM (the diagnostic bible of the mental-health profession) to affix to persons—because no matter how new and fancy the terms, the end result is the same (drugs and therapy, stigma and the cloister of private experience).
New words for what we feel include everyone, hence no need for a professional book that describes those unfortunates who are sadly askew. Citing trauma-expert Judith Herman on “collective trauma,” the prescription is nothing less than solidarity, truth-telling, and social action–Ms. Johnstone leaves us with a reminder that we really are all in this together:
“We need a new narrative of shared distress to replace the failed one of individual disorders.”
Many of us speak with such feeling and familiarity about our disorders, we anguish over “mental illness” as afflictions to shoulder alone or bear up in a niche of peer support if we’re lucky enough to access it. I’m all for the soul’s journey to its ultimate knowing, something you can’t import from another’s experience, and I respect the role of madness in creativity and spiritual emergency. But isn’t it way past time to recognize collective despair and grief for our planet for what it is—not a private sensitivity or failing, but a way to find each other, see that you really are like me in that you’re “stressed” because our house is on fire and there’s little disagreement about that—we really do know what to do.
Stop identifying with our disorders and apply the best medicine: a courage that’s birthed from a common aggregate of human experience and is one of the best things about us. Lack of bravery to grasp both the stunning potential for change in this moment and the danger in being so close to the end of everything—that is a moral problem, not a symptom that you’re sick, weak, or uniquely flawed. It took a pop singer, Sarah Bareilles, to say it bluntly: You can be the outcast/You can be the backlash/of somebody’s lack of love/Or you can start speaking up.
How about we show each other how big our brave is?