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Therapy aims to tackle climate distress, but there may not be enough in Indiana

Indiana's only known climate-aware therapist, Veronica Needler, at her office in Carmel. Needler is smiling. In the background you can see a chair, a plant, and a lamp with soft lighting. There is also a window that looks out to a pine tree.
Alan Mbathi
/
IPB News
Indiana's only known climate-aware therapist, Veronica Needler, at her office in Carmel.

There’s only so much time for countries around the world to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Here in Indiana, we’re already seeing things like more extreme heat, flooding and severe storms.

The problem is so big that it can make people feel helpless trying to fight it on their own — including a listener who reached out to us from New Castle.

A new type of therapy aims to help people turn their fears into action. It’s called climate-aware therapy — and it’s so new that there’s only one person we know of who offers it in Indiana.

In Veronica Needler’s office in Carmel, there’s the usual couch, chairs, and some pillows — but also big windows that let you see outside to trees and a pond nearby.

Though she’s been a licensed therapist for decades, she only stumbled upon training for climate-aware therapy last year while searching online.

“That sense of helplessness or hopelessness that people experience when they think about climate — and the ways that they get, I think, overwhelmed and then kind of paralyzed almost into inaction," Needler said.

Needler said most of her clients don’t come to her to talk about climate change specifically, but it certainly comes up.

“‘Never been this hot on an April day’ they might say and then they dismiss it. And I would — I might encourage them with this shift in climate awareness, to linger on that," she said.

Needler said she might ask clients what it means for them, what feelings it brings up, and let them know it’s OK to feel that way.

She hears from people who are worried about what the future will look like for their kids or grandkids — and even a rare few who see these changes in the climate as a sign of the apocalypse.

"So they see these changes as a reflection of what was predicted in their mindset, predicted in the Bible, and this is just how it's meant to be. And therefore doing something would not be called for in their minds," Needler said.

Because many Hoosiers aren't dealing with things like sea-level rise or wildfires, Needler said they may feel more insulated from climate change.

Changes in the Midwest can be more subtle than on the coast — making it seem like something that will happen in the future rather than something that's happening right now.

Psychotherapist and social worker Kristin Papa provides therapy for people in Puerto Rico, California, and Florida. She was in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017.

"I think it feels more real. I think after going through a situation like Maria, it's hard to deny the effects of climate change, and just how it really ravaged the islands," Papa said.

Papa said even today, Hurricane Maria affects Puerto Ricans' mental health — there's a panic around hurricane season that wasn't there before. Just like the pandemic, she said residents will talk about their lives in relation to the hurricane.

"There are still people that are working on getting their houses back together and, obviously, the electrical grid is still a challenge down here. But I think it's just kind of woven into our day-to-day conversations and lives," Papa said.

Needler and Papa offer one-on-one talk therapy, but there are other models of climate therapy too.

Breaking The Silence In Peer Support Groups

The Good Grief Network is a peer support program where people from all over the U.S. can meet in small groups online and talk through their feelings on climate change.

Despite the fact that climate change is a global problem, Good Grief co-founder LaUra Schmidt said climate distress can feel very isolating.

"How hard it is to be in a space of not knowing and to feel like your agency is not enough in this — like to tackle such a huge problem. So Good Grief came about as an attempt to first normalize the fact that we ought to be talking about these things and that we feel heavy and painful feelings," she said.

In a session, Schmidt said the group will use one of the steps in the program as a sort of prompt for the day and participants take turns sharing their experience.

“I think a lot of the problems that we're facing right now are due to disconnection and the easiest way to reconnect is to put a group of people together and get them talking at a heart level," she said.

READ MORE: Is climate change affecting your mental health? Check out this resource list

Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on statewide issues, including this series on climate change and solutions.

Schmidt said she feels one of the most important steps in the program is learning to be with uncertainty.

"Many of us – from a young age – are socialized to believe that we have to earn stability and we have to earn certainty," she said. "You know, if we graduate high school and go to college and get the right job and make the right family – that we can kind of push away uncertainty. And I think that's been an illusion that really needs to be brought down."

Schmidt said the group tries to understand how their bodies respond to uncertainty and how to be more nimble — so those fear responses aren't constantly being evoked.

But are there enough mental health resources to help Hoosiers process climate change? Probably not.

Accessing Climate Therapy Is A Challenge For Many

According to Mental Health America, Indiana ranks in the bottom 10 states for overall mental health. That means mental illness is both more prevalent in Indiana and there’s a much lower access to all kinds of mental health care — not just therapy.

Only eight states have fewer mental health care workers per person than Indiana — at a ratio of 590 to 1.

J. Phoenix Smith provides and teaches ecotherapy in Washington, D.C. Ecotherapy is a type of therapy "rooted in Indigenous wisdom" using nature to help clients’ mental health through things like gardening, working with horses or spending time in a forest.

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Smith said many people don’t have access to any kind of therapy — whether that’s because they don’t have insurance, there aren't enough therapists or any number of factors.

“And then when you look at it and stratify the data around income and race and gender, then that means that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color have even less access to therapy," she said.

That’s a problem — because those are the groups who are likely feeling the effects of climate change the most.

Take heat, for example. If you're lower-income, you may not have air conditioning to protect yourself from extreme heat. Because of racist practices like red-lining, historically Black communities may have fewer trees to shade their homes and neighborhoods.

Smith said the fact that most therapists are White can also be a barrier. She said clients from different races or cultures might not feel comfortable talking to someone who can’t relate to their experiences.

Smith recalls talking to a woman in a coffee shop about her husband's mental health struggles as a federal police officer who was there during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

"She said, you know, even with his years of experience as a federal government worker and insurance — it's so difficult for him to find a therapist that can relate to him as a man, as a Black man, and as a man that works as a police officer. And so they've been struggling and they have access to resources," Smith said.

Smith said climate-aware therapy is a nice thing if you can get it.

“But most people can't get it. So what do we do with people that are suffering now?” she said.

Working Through Climate Distress Could Lead To Solutions

Smith and the Alliance for Ecotherapy and Social Justice have created a program to train community members to provide peer support for people who don’t have insurance or can’t access a therapist. The Good Grief Network also offers facilitator training.

It’s possible that getting more people into therapy could actually lead to more climate solutions. Veronica Needler said doing something — even if small — tends to make people feel better.

And Schmidt said that kind of action doesn’t always mean organizing a protest — you can use what talents you have.

“Maybe your activism or your advocacy or your work in the world is offering child care for someone so they can go and do something that is — contacting legislators or, you know, maybe they're organizing some sort of community council or community meeting," Schmidt said.

One thing is clear — we have to address both climate change and also the mental health issues it creates. And Smith said we’ll have to do it together.

Contact reporter Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.