Jennifer Freeman is a marriage and family therapist and an Expressive Arts Therapist. Since 2017, she has been researching narratives centered on how humans are facing climate change and responding to these challenging times of social impoverishment, ecological degradation, the Anthropocene, and the sixth great extinction.
She has been engaged in therapeutic conversations, international community work, teaching, and professional writing for the past 30 years based on narrative approaches. She is the co-author of the book Playful Approaches to Serious Problems along with David Epston and Dean Lobovits.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Akansha Vaswani: I’m wondering why are you particularly concerned about climate change? Can you tell us a little bit about your personal history and how it got you to this topic?
Jennifer Freeman: I trace this back to our family’s 75-year adoptive relationship with the beautiful village of Sa’anapu on the island of Upolu, Samoa. I carry a title to this day, Afega I Tinoti. I came of age living within an extended family, immersed in a beautiful eco-sourced life, bathing in springs, fishing on a healthy reef, using oil lamps, walking everywhere, with a sense of people belonging to and with the land.
On returning to Australia with fresh eyes, I had a difficult, fiery adaptation. As a lot of young people do, I experienced pain, grief, and anger as I became aware of the cutting of virgin rainforests, uranium mining of sacred tribal lands, and the mistreatment of animals and oceans.
So, I plunged into activism, in the Aboriginal land rights and anti-apartheid movements. I learned about environmental dystopia, staying with an Aboriginal family in an impoverished area. We must recognize that many indigenous people, African-Americans, and other colonized people were forced into the dystopian conditions we now face a long time ago.
When I was seventeen I read the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. And, I had a clear waking vision of the seas rising, full of plastic, and coastal cities being inundated. I sounded the alarm, like Greta Thunberg, but people thought I was being melodramatic. A sign posted in a bookstore near me says, “The apocalyptic fiction section has been moved to current affairs.” That feels a bit like my life.
My parents had lived and researched with the Iban Dyak tribe in Sarawak — the Malaysian part of Borneo. Traveling alone in the region in my 20’s, I met a young man with an Iban tattoo. We teamed up and traveled through the rapids of the Rejang river to a longhouse which happened to be the very same one where my parents had lived. An old woman there touched me and cried, “Monica?” — my mother’s name. Eighty percent of the jungles of Borneo have now been plundered. I was there in the ’70s and it was hot. Its 10 degrees hotter now.
I had the stunning realization that I am of the generation to witness terrible degradations in these pristine environments I’ve been in love with.
In my thirties, I got involved with narrative therapy, then worked with the Just Therapy team of New Zealand, including indigenous-led disaster relief, all of which influenced my thinking about collective identities and the centrality of social justice in therapy. I’m also informed and inspired by being in nature, by the collective pathfinding ways of bees, by forests, and communities of birds and wild animals.
Vaswani: Based on your experiences as a therapist, why do you think those in the mental health arena should care about climate change?
Freeman: You and I are talking at the time of the international climate strike. Youth are imploring adults to wake up from the ‘business as usual’ slumber and get on this. The Extinction Rebellion movement is growing, along with the Sunrise Movement — and many others internationally.
The question is how can we not care about the impact on the wellbeing of those we serve given that we face global peril? There is also the potential of a great breakthrough — a turning towards global environmental and social justice. You could say this crisis is necessary because the ways humans have been living since the industrial revolution have caused tremendous suffering to the earth and have become untenable.
I’d say that anyone who’s receiving factual news is aware of melting ice, rising seas, killer heat waves, massive storms, and fires. In terms of mental health, I would argue that anyone informed has to be feeling it on some level. There are bound to be psychological effects from growing instability in local and global environments. We’re all living in relationship to this.
It’s been one of those areas that we haven’t raised in clinical settings. But it’s coming up increasingly. Grade school children are likely to be hearing about the Amazon being set on fire for profit. What’s it like to inform your children or grandchildren that 200 species a day are going extinct or that iconic species like whales, pandas, dolphins, tigers, and elephants are at great risk of being the dinosaurs of their future?
The extractive economies that we live in which treat people and nature as mere resources are disconnected and inhumane. My friend, science journalist Kat Snow, and I call this “Earth’s Environmental Crisis and Opportunity” rather than simply climate change. In the arena of mental health, as the future has become a fearful thing, young people are wondering about the point of being in school, or of their college degrees, or whether they should have kids.
My feeling is that mental health practitioners have an ethical responsibility to break out of our usual models, take courage and engage with what we and our clients are living through, to be proactive and inspired, rather than passively treat symptomatic effects.
There are many intersectional and social justice issues to be aware of in relation to these challenging times. So, for example, with the Northern California fires — the traumatic impact of those fires is affected by the resources that people have access to, to recover with. Even though the people who are able to rebuild with insurance money are dealing with major trauma, the impact for them is rather different than on local low wage workers.
A master’s in sustainability program in Sweden is trying to address disaster response from a social justice and narrative perspective that’s attuned to local cultures, instead of sweeping in with a westernized dominant cultural view and colonizing mental health in disaster relief.
It’s easy to avoid raising this in mental health care and understandable to want to push it away. But it’s important to get that the dominant story of doom and gloom invites helplessness. Staying passive and isolated as we face this is not great for anyone’s mental health. On the other hand, some people I meet with are turning this on its head, like an international studies student moving into climate refugee work, a science teacher engaging his class in activism, or a young chef educating about the impacts of beef production.
How all of this plays out is up to the conscious choices humans make. We all have spheres of influence. Providers and consumers are living together through a global unfolding that’s quite unique in history and holds great potential for visionary positive change.
Vaswani: As you’re calling upon us to examine this from a social justice perspective and looking at different ways we can respond responsibly as mental health professionals, I’m wondering about what you’ve witnessed in your own practice in terms of impacts of climate change on your clients’ mental health?
Freeman: Clinicians would agree that there’s a sharp increase in depression and anxiety, especially among youth and children. I am witnessing it partly through those who are raising the question. Children are asking their elders, “What is climate change? What does it mean for me?” I’m in collaboration with parents who are baffled about what to say to their kids about the future. I’m particularly concerned about young people, whose future this really is.
Now that I’m aware of it, because previously it was less visible to me, I think that people are likely to be in existential relationship to these times. When I see teens experiencing anxiety or depression, suicidality, despair, or hopelessness, I’ll also listen through the lens of, ‘I wonder if this could have anything to do with the global situation?’
People are used to thinking of problems as personal so they might not situate anxiety and sadness in wider issues. Someone might think that they have a condition called depression when it’s really profound sadness about the loss of an animal species or factory farming. And as soon as people have an opportunity to name it, they make the connection very quickly. They may have been thinking but just haven’t connected the dots in terms of their mental health.
The Bureau of Linguistic Reality, which is an artistic project, is coming up with terms to help name what’s going on. They came up with the idea of shadowtime. I think it’s relevant because it’s about a kind of dual, stressful awareness — that while you prepare your coffee or wait for the bus, the Arctic is burning. This creates an ongoing unease.
So, I gently inquire, “Would you be interested in going into your relationship with these environmental challenges and changes that we’re undergoing? Could it possibly relate to your suffering?” Most people are saying, “Oh yeah, for sure. Ok, let me think about it and let’s talk about it.” I’m not saying that every session is taken up with this, but these conversations are frequent.
I want to invite and challenge our field to question whether, even if we do identify crisis-related problems, are we going to go along with individualized diagnoses like Climate Anxiety Disorder, Eco-Depression, or Post Climate Disaster Disorder, while collecting fees in our practice for individualized treatment?
Do we treat on an individual basis, or do we help people to feel sane in an insane ecocidal world and then come into a community and be proactive?
To me, the point of becoming proactive is essential. Collective activism is a fantastic antidote to isolated helplessness, eco-anxiety, and depression. In times of instability lie the most opportunity, so how can I hold that possibility open in my collaborations with clients?
Vaswani: It would be interesting to hear from you why you think we haven’t responded to this problem earlier as mental health professionals?
Freeman: That Bureau of Linguistic Reality coined the term slowpocalypse or ennuipocalypse. It makes sense because evolutionarily speaking our brains are designed to respond to more immediate threats like flash floods and fires. When the danger passes, we tend to settle back into grazing mode or social media mode to distract ourselves. So, this crisis is not ‘experience-near,’ as we say in narrative therapy. We can easily keep threats at bay by saying, “Oh, the hurricane happened to those people in the Bahamas.” We might feel compassion, but it’s still at a distance.
For many of us, it’s in the future, it’s theoretical. That’s if you’re privileged because the greater impacts are being felt by indigenous people in the Amazon or in the Pacific islands (who have contributed the least to these detrimental changes), or in a community living on melting ice, or non-dominant communities like Flint, Michigan. Ironically, some wealthy people in Silicon Valley are building escape bunkers in New Zealand.
The information can be so overwhelming; it’s easy to just go on with business as usual. So, we can get stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock being avoidance, denial, and distraction and the hard place being fear, despair, or helplessness. I think we need to find ways to make this ‘experience closer,’ to realize we share one interconnected earth ecology and to step up in gratitude, with love and care.
Vaswani: The mental health field often thinks about problems as being located within people. So how do you think the psychology of individualism contributes to this feeling of being in a rock or a hard place?
Freeman: People are perversely encouraged to internalize the causes of suffering in our culture, including in traditional mental health practice.
Let’s say you’re a teenager aware of climate instability and you don’t yet feel inspired by anything. Do you bring it up at a party and risk being seen as a downer? Do you suck it up but feel isolated? You seem preoccupied and sad a lot, so your parents hire a therapist. You receive a diagnosis of depression and anxiety, and you’re medicated. Are you more likely to feel confused, isolated or even ashamed? If nobody’s affirming how much you care, and you don’t feel like you’re part of a community response, that’s going to make a big difference. A shame reaction can cause a protective part of you to numb out with devices and consuming or even drugs or alcohol.
Therapists easily miss this source of contextual stressors. It is helpful to consider and name them. In this case, identifying oppressive forces like the “Disconnect” or even naming “Extractive Colonization” can help a young person make sense of their unease. As these problems get called out, a person can join with others and mobilize against them. And when you name these things, you’re less likely to think there’s something wrong with you.
The psychology of individualism also makes a therapist blind. When I was younger, someone I knew who was concerned about the threat to whales was diagnosed with a delusional disorder by his psychiatrist. Many global areas of experience have been excluded from traditional psychiatry and therapy. Humans’ unhealthy relationship with their environment is a topic that’s been invisible too, and it’s high time for us to bring it forward. In narrative and postmodern practices, the effects of oppression in contexts of socioeconomics, race, culture, sexual preference, and gender are basic to our understanding of suffering.
People like Joanna Macy have been talking about this for a long time, but in mainstream practices, apart from eco-therapists, it’s been missing from the dialogue and needs to be invited in.
Vaswani: How do you think calling upon us to have a social response would lead to better mental health outcomes?
Freeman: Individually we are ecocidal, as we unwittingly participate in the extractive colonizing economy. Isolation is a crony to depression, despair, and helpless anxiety. But as we realize that things need to change, we move from the individual self, relating to Earth’s crisis, to collective levels of awareness and response. That’s an exciting development; when you realize that you’re not just struggling along with your feelings, you’re actually part of something so much bigger.
A collective sense of self, resting into the strength of community and even global responsivity is empowering. I love Paul Hawken’s book, called Blessed Unrest, where he names the countless people and organizations working for social and environmental justice as the world’s largest movement. He likens it to an immune response of Gaia. Feeling the cumulative practice of people’s gratitude and love counter the helplessness and despair. As I learned in Samoa, in a smoothly functioning community, many hands make lighter work.
How can you connect with your rural or urban tribes on issues you care about? Or as my friend and colleague Marcy Rivas names, “Come back into relationship with all our relations.” We are as one in the Gaian ecosystem. Collective awareness, being inspired and mobilizing, as the youth are doing, is so healing for the great disconnect.
Vaswani: I’m wondering about your identity as a narrative therapist and how you use ideas and principles from narrative therapy to address mental health issues related to this crisis.
Freeman: Using the guiding lights of narrative therapy has been helpful, firstly, in finding ways to name what people are dealing with and up against. To resist taking global problems personally, it’s helpful to externalize them, such as speaking of the disconnect. If you locate yourself as being in a relationship to a problem rather than being the problem, then you have agency and choice.
Consider this, if you’re upset about the extinction of a river dolphin species, might you be having an emotional but sane response to an insane situation — the ecocidal, eco-murderous civilization? Don’t our feelings and reactions make sense? I raise questions like:
“Is this hopeless, depressed grieving, or the kind of honest to goodness outpouring-of-caring crying that leaves you a bit wrung out, but lighter and with perspective?”
In narrative therapy we say that the stories we tell ourselves and others not only reflect experience but are performative, that is they shape the future, shape what we live into. A person taking in predictions on climate change and extinctions can easily be captured by a doomsday story of global collapse, to the point of immobilization. How we hold it matters.
Environmentalist Paul Hawkens and others are saying that humanity has the means to live intelligently and sustainably on earth but what we lack are intention and leadership. Then it becomes a psycho-social question.
Problems can be seen as testing human mettle, challenging us to find courage and creativity. The problematic version of people is often that they are too small and helpless to make a difference. Would a counter-story to that of lame, doomed humanity be an inspiration response?
Think about Dr. Martin Luther King who lit up the civil rights movement with love and inspiration rather than fear. What if we declare, “We’re awake, we love our Earth, and we’ve got this?” Imagine a love letter of gratitude from the future, from your grandchildren. What would it say?
Where there’s a problem-saturated story, there have to be exceptions to it. There is always an emergent liberative narrative — a story of hope. What we do well in narrative therapy is to find the threads of hope, strength, and possibility that are being overshadowed in fearful, overwhelming situations. We bring these counter stories into the light and strengthen them. In this context, what are people doing already? Like mass tree-planting movements, or defending bees or the Amazon; if you know you’re on a giant team, that we are in this together, does that encourage you?
How to hold open a vivid sense of possibility, of liberating stories unfolding, such as the “Great Turning,” the “Great transition,” the “Great Unfolding?” How do you help the planet move into its evolutionary potential? As I refuse to give up, I listen to youth stories emerging from the grassroots. Stories of falling in love with Earth, being eco-sourced, building close community, working in collectives, all kinds of restorative ingenuity. It’s amazing!
As adults, can we collaborate with young people, to consider how we can rise to the occasion together, envision and create generative economies and a thriving future? How do we strengthen these narratives from possible into promising?
Has the problem tricked you into thinking there’s a shortage of ideas? As Greta Thunberg says, don’t wring your hands, there’s something for everyone to contribute. How could you become an inspiration in your profession? Narrative therapy extended the container of therapy to include communities of concern, like the Temper Tamers club and the Anti-Anorexia, Anti Bulimia League. There are a zillion communities of concern, like Rainforest Alliance, or the World Wildlife Fund, to join, and actions to take. What are you drawn to? What would be your “environmental identity,” as Thomas Doherty puts it?
Would a preferred story be that I’m able to respond to Earth’s crisis and needs for justice from a place of profound gratitude and appreciation, responding with my gifts? From Reverend King’s, “I have a dream,” I imagine, “We have a dream… of a world we’ve only glimpsed.”
What is absent but implicit? The problem of “The Disconnect” says you’re tiny and useless. To counter it, do your part, with your gifts and spheres of influence. Start wherever you can see a step forward. How would it be for us to let go of a sense of grim pressure, to create a counter-tsunami of love for this exquisite living planet?
Vaswani: These are some interesting ideas from narrative therapy Jenny. Can you tell us how it might look in your practice?
Freeman: In trying to go beyond treating internalized effects and instead situate problems in context, I ask if clients are interested in delving into their relationship with the earth’s environmental crisis. I’m inviting people to join in looking at how the ecocidal system affects them and pay attention to their particular gifts and narratives of inspired response.
I like to interweave expressive arts and body-based therapies with narrative therapy because it feels so important to make room for our heart’s pain for the world — to express and release fears, move through grief and anger, and express protest. The arts are wonderful for visioning too.
Parents work with me about not just explaining the mess we are in, but sharing inspired responses with their kids, like, here’s what our family’s doing to tackle this. Let’s give holiday gifts to the Ocean conservatory for turtles. We can ride our bikes, visit local farms and markets, eat plant-based diets.
Activism can be a burnout and it’s hard to stay awake to the destruction and injustice in the world. Since I meet with diverse clients, I know I can’t assume what’s best for another. I’m asking about cultural sources of resilience and community nourishment, like singing, dance, or prayer, and I like engaging in ceremonial approaches.
I realized that it’s primary to orient to a person’s unique gifts and sources of inspiration, to their local knowledge. What are their spheres of influence? How could these be engaged? Like the science teacher, deciding not only to teach about climate change but engage his high school class in local solutions in their neighborhoods.
This week, when I heard from his wife that a man had decided to switch off the news, which was driving her nuts, I asked was he sliding from the hard place back to the rock. What kinds of solutions inspired him? I gave her links for Project Drawdown to share, which has lots for a household and community to engage with. We talked about countering the family’s sense of helplessness, particularly his. Two weeks later, she came in and told me she quit her stale job and opened a new green-design business.
I enquire about what communities of concern a person might feel at home within? Everyone dealing with ‘Earth’s environmental crisis and opportunity’ makes up a global community of concern, with local chapters. I ask myself every week, how I can go out past where the buses don’t run and even the satellites don’t orbit, to move through all of this.
Vaswani: Jenny, thank you so much for speaking with us. Any final thoughts?
Freeman: I’m thinking as I work with people in an ecocidal, extractive economy, that encourages us to ‘machinalize,’ what’s counter to that? How about becoming eco-sourced? I’m bringing that into practice. What nourishes and how might you turn to that wholeheartedly? Is that a walk in the woods? Is that experiencing the miraculous nature of water with a swim? Contemplating a bird or a cloud until your mind relaxes, clears, and gets creative again.
I did want to tell you one story about a young woman. I started seeing her 7 years ago. She was suffering from ‘anorexia nervosa’ and became acutely suicidal. I spent many months just struggling to help fight for her life. One day it occurred to me to ask her, “Does your despair have anything to do with wider environmental issues?” She just burst into tears, saying, “Yes, I just carry that alone. What I’m really despairing about is factory farming. I can’t stand to live in a world where animals are treated like that.”
I said, “With a heart like yours that cares so much about animals, might it be that animals really need someone like you, and it would be such a loss if you left? Could you make a difference? Might you be the very person they might need to stick around and help?” She nodded thoughtfully, and things went on.
Five years later she sought me out, to let me know that the moment she decided to live was when I asked her if she wanted to be part of the problem or part of the solution. She volunteered for an animal sanctuary, later became a vegan baker and was now getting her college degree. That’s the kind of shift that’s happening.