Course Spotlight: Eco-psychology

By Cassandra Morrison

This relatively new area of focus within psychology explores human nature and the human capacity to influence the environmental crisis.

Coursework at Saybrook University relies on the basic values of understanding and improving systems throughout the world. Founded on the principles of humanistic psychology, the solutions that students and faculty find are ever evolving just as the world is. With our planet changing so drastically over the last hundred years and the future all but in question due to climate change, eco-psychology is more important than ever for clinicians and thinkers alike.

Ecological psychology is the study of the human being as a part of the web of life. This new field is critical of traditional psychology, which emphasizes the individual self and its capacities for mastery and control and which views the environment as distinct from the self. By contrast, ecological psychology views humans as interconnected with the larger systems of nature and subject to its laws, and by virtue of our conscious awareness to be stewards of our shared planet. As a relatively new field, its foundation is based on ancient perspectives and practices.Version 3

In the TSC 6500 Ecological Psychology course, Laura Turner-Essel, Ph.D., challenges students with the origins of the discipline, along with new research and current conversation. “The course was developed by one of the leaders in the field, Linda Riebel, Ph.D., in response to the ecological crisis,” Dr. Turner-Essel says. “With climate change and a lot of the degradation that we see in our ecosystem, I think it’s important to get back to the roots of what eco-psychology is by looking at how human health and well-being are tied up and interwoven with our planet.”

From texts such as “Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind” to “Therapy in the Face of Climate Change” and “States of Emergency: Trauma and Climate Change,” the course helps students learn about various fields that can help them understand human response and resistance to more sustainable lifestyles and how psychological tools can help to heal the disconnect between people and planet.

“One of the things we discuss is how different clinical treatments and counseling therapies have emerged as people try and reconnect with nature,” Dr. Turner-Essel says. “We work to combine what we know about clinical work, with the awareness that we are actually creatures who are designed to be in close proximity with Earth. We need that connection for our well-being and survival.”

Read related: Bringing The Outdoors In

Psychologists and clinicians were not always aware of the connection between ecological problems and the rise of mental health crises; however, many eco-psychologists now believe these are two symptoms of the same problem. In an article written by Saybrook faculty member and leader in the field Dr. Riebel, even the relationship between eating disorders and Earth becomes apparent.

“At the time, people weren’t used to thinking about these things being related, but there’s growing awareness that they are symptoms of the same disease,” Dr. Turner-Essel says. “When we have this mentality of consumption as a way of life, it shows up on all types of levels—Individual, community, institutional, and sociological. Many of our clinical disorders have these societal roots.”

The class is organized around the four tasks of eco-psychology as laid out in one of the field’s founding texts, Radical Ecopsychology: Pyschology in the Service of Life—the psychological, philosophical, practical, and critical/political. In order to explore the many different perspectives within the field, the course relies heavily on reading, with assignments and online discussion boards designed to encourage students to synthesize and connect the different sources.

Humans endanger species, ecosystems, themselves, and even the climate by altering, depleting, and poisoning our planet. Students of sustainability, social transformation, organizational leadership, psychotherapy, consciousness, and spirituality can benefit from looking through an eco-psychological lens. The course serves anyone concerned with how humans created the current environmental crisis and how to resolve it—from clinicians whose clients are physically and emotionally harmed by their absence of connection to their life-supporting habitats, to business managers intending to become more effective green leaders, to advocates for animals, wildlife, environmental preservation, to low-impact lifestyles and local community productivity. In a world that is increasingly unstable, the study of Earth and psychology allows students another way to understand and inspire the world around them.

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