Monday, September 29, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: The Good, the Bad and the Strange

Recent news report featured three mental-health-related developments of note to those of us working with eco-anxiety.

First, an article in the Los Angeles Times claims that a troubled economy can be good for our health. Sounds pretty strange, right? Well, it's a classic case of good news/bad news.

The article is based on the correlation between health trends and economic conditions in 27 countries. The good news in this article is that the general "population's physical well-being improves as just about every measure of economic health dips." The statistics show that as economies worsen, the incidence of traffic accidents, industrial accidents, obesity, alcohol consumption, smoking and even deaths from heart disease, which they correlate to lower pollution levels, all go down.

In other words, due primarily to job loss and inflation, the report explains, people are "smoking, drinking and driving less, reducing their risks of heart disease, liver disease and car crashes."

Is this really good news, or is there more to this picture? You have to wonder if this isn't in indication of how disconnected our society has become when we are in many ways healthier in bad economic times. And perhaps it validates the claims of those who firmly believe that once we get through the difficult transition from an unsustainable way of life we will indeed be better off.

But There's One Notable Exception and Some Doubt

Mental health. Stress goes up and mental health declines in bad economic times. That's bad news. Given the mind/body connection, I have to question the blanket conclusion of this article, which does include reference to the doubts of other researchers such as Ralph Catalano, economist at the School of Public Health of the University of California at Berkeley. He says, "I think the evidence is that the net effect of a bad economy is that health gets worse."

Days later another article in the LA Times would bolster Catalano's assessment. It claims today's anxiety over job security amid the current economic woes have employees wrought with fear, stress, and discomfort which is showing up as more disruptive angry outbursts, frequent absences, financial and personal problems, depression, difficulties at home, and alcoholism and drug abuse. Anxiety over rising gas prices are also cited in particular.

So can we be healthier while griped with fear and stress? A pretty strange conclusion. Certainly both articles suggest that a lot of people will be needing mental health counseling. And on that front this is additional good news.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a Mental Health Parity bill requiring health-insurance providers nationwide to cover mental-health treatment on an equal basis with medical care. The Senate also passed similar legislation in a the tax relief bill.

This should be good news, but then some claim this requirement will result in fewer employers providing health coverage, or increasing the portion of insurance paid for by the employee, causing fewer people to be able to afford health coverage. That would be bad news.

It's all pretty strange, but then, Richard Heinberg, author of Peak Everything predict we'll be seeing a lot of "crazy" things as an unsustainable fossil fuel-based economy is forced to powerdown.

(c)Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008
(Distribution for informational purposes only is encouraged.)
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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: Reinventing Collapse

A Must Read Book for Helping Professionals by Dmitry Orlov

Reinventing Collapse, The Soviet Example and American Prospects, is not an easy book to read. The difficulty is not in the writing. That is crisp, clear, and exceptionally well-organized. It’s the message that’s difficult to digest. Some refuse to read it; others can take it only in small doses. But as helping professionals we better be reading it. It’s a little like taking your medicine when you’re a kid. You’ll be better off for it, but you’ll have to make yourself strong before swallowing and unless you’re an inveterate cynic with an iron stomach, you may want to have some Maalox handy to sooth the after burn.

Eyewitness to the Soviet collapse during the 1980’s and 1990’s, author Dmitry Orlov, a Russian immigrant to the US, dares to extrapolate from what he saw happen there disturbing lessons for the US as our economy wilts under the pressure of heavy debt, a devalued currency and a major energy crisis. While some will find such a comparison audacious and ask what we could possibly have in common with the experiences there, he points out a host of similarities too blatant to deny.

But the real stickler is the equally blatant differences he lays out between the two superpowers. These suggest that what may lie a head for us could be even more catastrophic than what the Soviets suffered. And millions there suffered mightily.

Orlov points out, for example, that price controls kept the lights on, state ownership meant few lost their homes, and few went without heat thanks to giant, state-run neighborhood steam boilers. The extensive mass transit system continued to run throughout and, because of “the dismal state of Soviet agriculture,” many people already relied on “institutional food” and “kitchen gardens” to keep food on the table. So, there was no starvation and little malnutrition. This is in stark contrast to the issues he points out we will face in regard to these and other essentials of a modern life.

The book is by no means all one big downer, though. Some readers find Orlov’s unfailing refusal to whitewash harsh realities refreshing. Others even find his juxtaposition of wit with threat amusing. While he admits, “Many will suffer and many lives will be cut short,” he also contends human society has a way of righting itself. Latter chapters are filled with specific solutions we can garner to mitigate the effects of economic collapse. Many are unconventional adaptations we’re fully capable of making, including some hefty attitude adjustments. Others foreshadow opportunities that will most likely emerge from the most difficult of times.

Sprinkled through out the book one also finds reference to unique often-taken-for-granted assets of the American psyche we will be well served to cultivate.

Concluding on a surprisingly hopeful note, Orlov writes, "In spite of all this, I believe that in every age and circumstance, people can sometimes find not just a means and a reason to survive, but enlightenment, fulfillment, and freedom.”

Forgiving the occasional meander into gratuitous partisan asides, we pass on reading this gem at our peril.

Why Mental Health Professionals in Particular Must Read This Book

“Economic collapse is about the worst possible time for someone to suffer a nervous breakdown, yet this is what often happens.” Dmitry Orlov

It doesn’t take Dmitry Orlov’s forewarning to see we in the mental health profession had best be preparing for a tsunami of emotionally and psychologically wounded on our doorsteps. The financially distraught middle-class is already experiencing record levels of pain as the economic effects of peak oil, climate change, and environmental degradation empty our bank accounts and erode the unsustainable material prosperity and comfort we’re currently addicted to. But we haven’t seen anything yet.

That’s why we as helping professionals need to read this book. It provides a peek at the depth and breadth of just what could be coming. Having seen the emotional effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union first hand, he presents all-too-painfully just how tenuous the mental health of our US population is and how many of our most prized self-concepts, values, beliefs and aspirations lie at the heart of our psychological fragility.

Scouring Reinventing Collapse with the eye of a psychotherapist, one can glean:

1) Who will be most vulnerable. A careful analysis reveals 19 different categories of susceptible individuals covering the bulk of the US population. Many are not immediately obvious, i.e. men ages 45-55 being among the most at risk, especially those who are also movers and shakers.

2) What psychological maladies will be most prevalent. Stress, anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, criminal behavior, and suicide top the list.

3) The kind of assistance we need to be ready to provide, specifically the dramatic changes in values, attitudes, and beliefs we’ll need to facilitate and the practical hands-on aid we’ll need to offer.

Orlov makes one thing clear – we better be ready. While his book will most likely shock and disturb, it will also prove to be an invaluable guide for those willing to view the mental health horizon with a wide-angle lens.

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008
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