Photo: Coping with climate change is a family matter

(Credit: Difei via Flickr)

Michael Ocana is a child-and-adolescent psychiatrist in Kelowna, B.C., with an interest in the climate crisis. Docs Talk asked Dr. Ocana to share his ideas on how to take care of our mental health in the face of environmental challenges and how to support our children as they grow up in a changing world.

Docs Talk: What emotions are involved in our response to the climate crisis?

Dr. Ocana: First of all, I have found that integrating an awareness of the implications of climate change is difficult. It is not easy to image that the world may be profoundly different for our children or grandchildren. When we do, we might experience sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety and guilt. Processing these emotions is no small task. Our culture includes strong social pressure to "think positive" and "put on a brave face." We can face resistance from others as we wrestle with a new awareness. In our modern world there is rarely the social network available to support our experience of such powerful emotions. The power of the individual to influence change seems so small. It is easy to give up, believing that any action we take will be meaningless. Yet we do have an influence no matter how tiny. We can't entirely distance ourselves from shared responsibility. The potential for guilt and psychic dissonance sets in. It may even feel as if we are facing a decision between denial and succumbing to anxiety and paranoia. The path between these two extremes can feel like a tightrope.

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Docs Talk: What considerations are raised for parents in talking to their children about the climate crisis?

Dr. Ocana: Our children are young investigators of the world they inhabit. They can sometimes make us uncomfortable with their questions. How much should we inform them? Will they be overwhelmed and anxious? Really, the question we are asking is: "Will we become overwhelmed and anxious in responding to their questions?" Children are extensions of us. Our dilemmas become theirs. Therefore, as in so many aspects of parenting, we are challenged with finding ways to cope successfully as parents, so that our children can cope successfully. We can respond to our children when they encounter information about the climate crisis and we can in small but significant ways point out some of the challenges in our environment when it is appropriate to do so. It helps when we have words to give them for the emotions that arise and when we demonstrate that we too have space for such feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Docs Talk: How can we successfully integrate information that changes our world view about the climate crisis without falling apart emotionally?

Dr. Ocana: First, we need to acknowledge that this information will trigger unpleasant emotions. If we give ourselves permission to have these feelings we will be going a long ways toward successful coping. These feelings are reactions to information that we have not previously digested. We feel worried about the future because it is reasonable to be worried. We feel sad about the damage that has been done to the environment. We feel angry and frustrated that others have not done something to prevent it, and we feel ashamed and guilty that we have ourselves in whatever tiny way contributed to the problem. None of these feelings are inherently "bad". However, they are unpleasant.

Michael OcanaThe second thing we can do is to find a supportive group of people that can accept these feelings alongside us. Living in isolation with highly unpleasant feelings is essentially stressful. Community volunteer groups or discussion groups are an excellent place to start. The Internet can make this easier, although face-to-face groups can offer more opportunities for high-quality social interactions. Religious communities can also be supportive. Certainly, family and friends, when they are similarly minded, can be open to mutual exploration of new information, but sometimes they will put up resistance.

Docs Talk: What advice do you have for how we approach the urgent need for action on climate change?

Dr. Ocana: I suggest we embark on the process of identifying the values that come into play in our emotional response to climate change and take action that is consistent with these values. The point is not to singlehandedly change the world. The point is to engage in meaningful activity, even sacrifice, as an expression of our values. In so doing, we set an example for others and find a sense of community with those who are like-minded. Parents can similarly guide children in identifying child-sized actions that they can take to contribute to the solution, but more importantly to crystallize their own values and put them into action. Children are capable of taking pride in such activity when they are included in the process of determining what activities would represent meaningful action.

January 5, 2012

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