David Pollack, MD
Oregon Health & Science University
Climate Psychiatry Alliance
Climate change worsens the mental health of people who are impacted by it, and everyone is impacted directly or indirectly. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Association of Community Psychiatrists (AACP) are coming to this awareness, fostered by the leadership of climate activists such as community and public psychiatrist David Pollack.
“APA recognizes and commits to support and collaborate with patients, communities, and other healthcare organizations engaged in efforts to mitigate the adverse health and mental health effects of climate change,” says a position statement adopted in March 2017 by the APA’s board of trustees.
Dr. Pollack, Professor Emeritus for Public Policy at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, has worked with other colleagues to motivate all health professionals to pay close attention to mental health issues derived from climate disruption.
“Most psychiatrists accept the reality of climate change,” Pollack says. “The harms notably include increased suicide rates correlated with temperature increases and pervasive eco-anxiety. However, we must turn that perception into more immediate concern.”
Five years ago, when he raised these issues at professional meetings, “people looked at me as if I were needlessly catastrophizing,” Pollack recalls. So he and like-minded psychiatric colleagues formed the Climate Psychiatry Alliance to promote education and advocacy. Education goals include scientific sessions at APA and other organizational conferences. Advocacy includes policy statements and articles in broad circulation trade papers, such as APA’s Psychiatric News.
The efforts have paid off. An APA Caucus on Mental Health and Climate Change has been launched. They have succeeded in getting ever more sessions on climate change in the annual meetings.
The Climate Psychiatry Alliance succeeded in getting the APA Assembly to approve a decision for the APA to divest from fossil fuel companies. Dr. Pollack authored a lead article in the October issue of Psychiatric Times, “Climate Change and Its Impacts on Mental Health,” which is the first in a months-long series.
The approach of Dr. Pollack and his colleagues is to organize as a group of activists, create an action plan, and follow through. “We are persistent, and have identified key strategic interventions,” he says. “One crucial argument is to emphasize the gravity of this emerging slow-moving disaster, which is perilous to deny or ignore.”
Can this approach work for other medical societies? Pollack feels certain of it. “It’s a proven and meaningful model.”