The virus from hell . . . the Earth speaking back to sloppy human greed . . . the suffering of animals in fire, flood, and hurricanes . . . the golden age of dystopian novels and film . . . welcome to our big world of worry now. Around the edges of crisis after crisis, new terms have been coming to the fore that fascinate me—evocative words, sometimes poetic, often cumbersome–though ultimately their effect is downright chilling. They center on human emotions as we face dire planetary events.
None of these words are easy to love: they call for a new view of the anxiety, grief and despair generated when one feels overwhelmed by current world crises, from climate change to coronavirus. Listen to these up and coming words with me, because later I’d like to ask you something.
Ecocide may be the most familiar of the bunch. Environmental destruction, but with a sinister twist: add the qualifier, “willfully done.” Some lament that ecocide isn’t formally designated an international crime. Think genocide, infanticide, suicide…this use of the prefix “eco”–often attached to denote something “green” and feel-goodly–makes me shudder.
The following pair, I promise, is not all dark. Informally scientists call our times the Anthropocene (Greek for “recent age of man”) epoch. Britannica explains it as the geologic interval when humans made a significant impact across the earth’s surface, oceans, atmosphere and chemical cycles—from 1950 to ongoing. Its more hopeful descendant waiting to be born is the Symbiocene epoch when, you guessed it, humans and nature reconcile, and we’re not worrying our heads off about the future of life itself.
Glenn Albrecht is a philosopher generating a batch of vocabulary so strange to the ear it makes my head spin:
. . . positive psychoterratic states such as topophilia and biophilia and . . . new concepts of soliphilia, sumbiophilia, endemophilia and eutierria.
Wait—what? More from him in a moment.
This one is easy to 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–to reverse climate change, for example. People without symptoms might know the feeling, as we hunker at home and worry for the COVID 19 pandemic to come knocking on our door.
Solastalgia (kin to nostalgia) is another 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 all too well!
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 feeling-states will ever become bonafide mental-health diagnoses? Should they? Or are they the word play of philosophers, leading us into creative 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, never speaking of the tangible dangers unfolding planet-wide, their focus only on “coping?”
Now from new words to simple words anyone can understand–on a bumper sticker. I bought it months ago because the stark yet comforting message grabbed me: We Are All in This Together. Superimposed on Earth floating in black space, I hoped it was the perfect line to reach anyone, 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 will come. Yes, folks are anxious, sleepless, feeling trapped and depressed. But be careful, she says, of how this is likely to play out.
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:
(T)he 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…
(D)iagnostic 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 necessary compassion and the need to address our burdensome feelings? Dr. Johnstone says to focus on the problem of the pandemic through communities of action, support, networking, friendships and mutual care.
We are going to have to face the fact that this outbreak was not only predicted, it is the direct result of thoughtless industrial spread and consumer greed on animal habitats, driving them closer to us, exposing us to their 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? Dr. 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…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.
I wonder what Lucy Johnstone would think about the new cache of created words and phrases to describe ways in which we’re falling apart over massive environmental change. She’s opened my eyes to the bottom line: no matter how compassionate or evocative, we don’t need new labels in the DSM (the diagnostic bible of the mental-health profession)—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).
Nonetheless I’m drawn to the efforts of ecologists and philosophers to challenge the old labels with new words that connect us in the hardest of times. Citing trauma-expert Judith Herman’s prescription of solidarity, truth-telling, and social action for healing “collective trauma,” Dr. Johnstone leaves us with this reminder:
“We need a new narrative of shared distress to replace the failed one of individual disorders.”
Amen to that. Side note, important note: run a search on all the press that Vitamin C and Vitamin D are getting as helpful fighters against the coronavirus. Those waiting for their new clients in the coming “mental health crisis” won’t mention the role that both these anti-viral nutrients have in addressing anxiety and depression, either. C plus D equals a win-win, and don’t overlook Vitamin A or powerful herbal antibiotics either. But that’s the subject of another post to come.
See you next time with “How’s Your Brain? Depends on Who’s Asking.”