The age of anxiety

Martin Milton reports from the British Psychological Society's Division of Counselling Psychology's Annual Conference climate change strand.

Like many events last year, the Division of Counselling Psychology’s annual conference had to be cancelled due to the pandemic and was sorely missed. One year on and the Conference was back – albeit online for the first time. Its theme was The Age of Anxiety

The conference opened with a keynote from Professor Simon du Plock whose paper, entitled Re-discovering wonderment in the age of anxiety, set the scene wonderfully for a range of the contributions to come. As well as keynotes, the conference provided poster sessions, a colloquy of international counselling psychology organisations, introductions to the profession for the many students who attended (hopefully now curious about a career in counselling psychology), and papers presenting the work that colleagues and trainees are currently engaged in. It catered for the neophyte through to us old crones, opening new areas of interest and allowing us to update our thinking about practice. I’m told 37 different countries were represented. 

On Saturday I was part of the Climate Change Strand and was delighted that our eminent keynote speaker, Professor David Uzzell, and our superb panel (Dr Alison Greenwood, Dr Patrick Kennedy and Maya Gimalova), were all still available to join us. 

Professor Uzzell’s talk, entitled The climate emergency and counselling psychology: Is it only about adaptation now?, skilfully set the scientific scene, drawing on his 40 years of work in environmental psychology and 30 years of work in the climate change arena (Yes, that’s how long psychologists have been involved in this area… and see Uzzell's 2010 article). David helped delegates explore the place of pleas, nudges, and sanctions, (under the guise of Carrots, sticks and sermons) and engaged with the complexity of the task, noting that if psychologists are to make an effective contribution to the climate crisis, we must consider more than just individual behaviours. It is also important to recognise that individual and social action is affected by factors such as meaning and identity. The tension between the individual and the collective was a key theme and one recognised by delegates who, of course, frequently explore this interface with clients in the consulting room. This was an issue that was picked up in questions and in the workshops that followed. 

From Professor Uzzell’s keynote we moved onto the panel discussion. We utilised the popular Question Time format (with me trying hard to emulate the best of David Dimbleby and Fiona Bruce). Alison, Patrick and Maya responded to David’s keynote before opening the floor to questions from delegates. It was clear that we had a large and knowledgeable audience who questioned the panel about, and offered insights related to: 

+ the ways in which an individual psychologist might maximise their involvement. Research activity, policy development, consultancy and therapeutic practice were all discussed;

+ the intersectional nature of the climate and environmental emergency, including the insidious way that power relations are implicated in the crisis, including environmental racism;

+ for therapeutic practice and health service policy, the need to see climate related anxiety as a valid experience rather than pathologising it;

+ the use of innovative ways of working outdoors to maximise the benefits of nature and encouraging pro-environmental behaviours;

+ factoring environmental stressors into assessment and formulation;

+ the need to consider supporting children and young people, who seem to be very aware of the crisis;

and much more.

After the rest break, the morning reconvened for the first of three workshops by the panellists. Dr Patrick Kennedy entitled his workshop Turn the tide on climate anxiety: How applied psychology can support sustainable action and many of the delegates were delighted to have a chance to think about work with children who present with climate related anxiety and the distress experienced by parents as to how to help them. Dr Kennedy picked up on the intersectional aspect of climate change, and the importance of attending to other social injustices such as racism and economic inequality that compound the distress. 

Maya Gimalova entitled her workshop Understanding climate and environmental crises in relation to counselling psychology: A way forward. Maya too picked up on the intersectional aspect of climate change and amplified the many ways it may be present in a client’s presenting material. Delegates were appreciative of having literature suggested to help them for further reading. (For those interested Maya had already assisted the Division by making a resource available on the Division website). I was separately contacted by delegates voicing their appreciation of the chance to undertake the reflective exercise Maya engaged us with. 

Dr Alison Greenwood started her workshop, The mental health benefits of nature, with another reflective exercise, which received appreciative comments in the discussion sectionAs the founder and lead of the mental health charity, Dose of Nature, she was able to help delegates think both about clinical practice and to point us to the wealth of evidence upon which this is based. There was quite an appetite from delegates to the idea of nature prescriptions, an intervention supported by GPs and clients alike. Personally, I was delighted when Alison steered us towards ‘close at hand’ nature; our local parks, street trees, gardens or the ability to stop for a moment and look up at the clouds and the birds that might fly by. For many the idea of nature as exotic and far away has gotten in the way of engaging with nature. 

Overall, the day was a wonderful balance of reflection, therapeutic considerations underpinned by research evidence. 

I know that the conference organisers were always hopeful that delegates would find ways to meet colleagues, share ideas and develop alliances. I am delighted that this has already started. Several delegates have been in touch to offer their own services to the DCoP Environmental and Climate Crisis workstream, which we hope will, in due course, mean we are able to respond with expertise and in a timely fashion to calls from the BPS Environmental and Climate Change Steering Group to assist with the intersectional work that this crisis needs. 

All in all a refreshing, thought-provoking and invigorating conference. 

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