Ecopsychology: Discovering the connection between sustainability and mental health with Thomas Doherty

Originally posted on February 27, 2011

by Hanna Wheeler

What’s the connection between mental health and sustainability? That’s one of the many questions that the growing field of ecopsychology explores.

Ecopsychology has gained recognition thanks to the work of psychologist Thomas Doherty of Portland, Oregon. He’s the founder and editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Ecopsychology, the first peer-reviewed journal to focus on the connections between environmental issues and mental health.

He served as a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) Climate Change Task Force, which brought focus to the relationship between psychology and global climate change. He’s also the associate coordinator of Ecopsychology Studies at the Lewis & Clark Graduate School in Portland. Through his private practice, Sustainable Self, he offers counseling for individuals, couples and organizations. He also serves as a consultant and organizes workshops across the country on topics of ecopsychology.

But what is ecopsychology? Doherty said ecopsychology “situates psychology in a natural environmental context.” The term was coined by author and scholar Theodore Roszak, the man behind the term “counter-culture.” In the early years, ecopsychology did have a counter-culture quality, but a growing number of professionals, writers and researchers are bringing it into the mainstream.

Doherty grew up in Buffalo, New York. He received his BA from Columbia University and his doctorate in clinical psychology from Antioch University New England. It was his experience as a river guide in the Grand Canyon and his work as a wilderness therapy leader that opened his eyes to our multifaceted connections to nature.

“I was observing people’s identify-formation in an outdoor setting,” he said. “So when I was exposed to the idea of [ecopsychology], it made intuitive sense to me.”

During counseling sessions, Doherty invites people to talk the sustainability of their lifestyles and emotions. “I’ll talk about sustainability and health interchangeably. [Sustainability] doesn’t just mean carbon footprint but how you think about your life,” he said.

He also builds dialogue through the journal Ecopsychology, which, according to its description, “examines the psychological, spiritual, and therapeutic aspects of human-nature relationships, concern about environmental issues, and responsibility for protecting natural places and other species.”

“There haven’t traditionally been a lot of venues for this kind of work,” said Doherty. “Part of our job is to be rigorous in terms of the scholarship and research, and to bring these ideas under empirical scrutiny,” he said.

The journal also examines ecopsychology research and policy implications. “It brings this work to the floor,” said Doherty. “Rather than being separate silos with researchers in the labs and policy makers in the government.”

The journal’s audience includes academic writers, students, mental health professionals and other interested readers. At the same time, Doherty said the journal works to “avoid being so jargonized that it isn’t relevant.”

The journal is an example of Doherty’s inter-disciplinary approach, which he says is sometimes difficult. “It’s the nature of the western academic tradition,” he said. “We have a whole academic system built on specialization. It’s based on separate departments.”

The reason for this, Doherty says, is our “reductionist approach” to thinking. “Science does a great job of taking the world apart but doesn’t do a great job of putting it back together again,” he said.

Doherty also helps build common ground for people outside of academic circles. “It tires me to see this ongoing battle for hearts and minds by industry groups and environmental groups. It’s forcing people to choose sides,” he said.

“People aren’t going to agree, but how do we figure out a way for them to collaborate? The only way forward is to have more of a dialogue,” said Doherty.

Central to his work is studying environmental identity, which Doherty describes as “the way people think of themselves in relation to the natural world.” Doherty says it’s a misconception that people either have an environmental identity or they don’t. “How do we get past these simplistic dichotomies?” he asked.

In the end, everyone has some sort of environmental identity. “I don’t know anyone in my life who was against nature or pro-extinction,” said Doherty.

Doherty brought this way of thinking to the APA task force, which last year released a 230-page report titled “Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change.”

“My hope is people will accept that there are psychological impacts from climate change,” said Doherty. “Having it written up in journals will allow students and teachers to teach that.”

Doherty says that the APA report legitimizes bringing the emotional realm into the climate change debate. Before, psychologists would have rejected these ideas as a serious topic of debate. “That won’t happen now. It prevents that feeling that connection to nature is just not validated,” said Doherty.

“At the core, that’s what ecopsychology was all about. The paradox is it’s taken all this environmental degradation to turn that around,” he said.

Some recent projects

  • Helping to advise the Green Sports Alliance, which was formed to improve the sustainability profile of major league sports teams and to use their community leverage to influence their fan base.
  • Couples environmental issues talks (“It’s not about picking sides. It creates a forum for people to talk about that and improve acceptance of each other.” –Thomas Doherty)
  • Working with Carol Saunders to develop a conservation psychology training at Antioch University New England
  • Helping to develop a masters program for ecopsychology at Lewis & Clark

What he’s been reading lately

  • The Politics of the Earth by John S. Dryzek
  • Why We Disagree About Climate Change by Mike Hulme
  • Global Warming’s Six Americas by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication
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