Climate psychology & collapse – DAF Q&A with Jasmine Kieft
Jasmine Kieft is a Clinical Psychologist Registrar, a member of the leadership team of the Climate Justice Union in Western Australian, a mother of young children, and a member of the Deep Adaptation Forum. She recently published – with Jem Bendell – a review of the relevant literature within psychology that investigates how to best support the mental health needs of individuals experiencing crisis and disaster. She is one of a growing number of psychologists who are calling for discussions of emotional responses to the climate crisis to become part of mainstream discourse in their field. Her article ‘Embracing climate related emotions’ has been published this month in The Psychologist,the official monthly publication of The British Psychological Society. We caught up with Jasmine to find out more about her work, and her experience as an advocate for ‘deeply adapting psychology’.
Can you begin by sharing something about yourself, particularly how you came to be working on this topic?
This is a tricky one because I can’t really pick a particular moment or pivotal event that would be the sole reason for working in this space. This has been a path I have been on for a long time. I have always been in love with our earth. When I was little I was the child who would give speeches in class about why I loved rocks, or recite poetry about flowers. I was delighted to receive a geology encyclopedia (which I still have) or a worm farm for Christmas. I would wake my father up at 5am everyday to cycle to Heirisson Island where I had made friends with the kangaroos and they knew me by my voice. Fast forward 30ish years later and I was a psychologist conducting experimental research into the importance of expressed emotion in group therapy whilst also studying clinical psychology to learn how to diagnose and treat people; often involving the presence of emotion. I recall airing my frustrations with my friend Luke Skinner (co-founder of Climate Justice Union, Western Australia) about what seemed to me to be a system that is uncomfortable with emotion, and how counterproductive this could be in engaging with people concerned about climate change. CJU was only a few months old at that point and Luke suggested that I join them so I could do something about it. In reflecting on all this, I am reminded of Rumi’s words, “as you start to walk on the way, the way appears” and I am very fortunate that my ‘way’ has led me to be able to make comparably small yet important contributions to an area that I care a lot about.
You recently co-published, with Jem Bendell, a comprehensive literature review of what psychological research reveals about communicating difficult truths about climate influenced societal disruption and collapse. For any of our readers who don’t want to read an eleven thousand word academic paper, what are some of your most important messages?
We wanted to get a sense of the human experience of disaster and crisis, both during and after, and so we searched the available psychological literature on disaster and crisis in general; whether it be terminal diagnosis, financial crisis, natural disaster etc. There were several distinct topics covered and the results revealed three overarching themes; firstly, the important role of emotion and emotion focused coping and how this can lead to post traumatic growth such as increased resilience and ‘altruism born of suffering’; secondly, the importance of collective responsibility for mental health and well-being and the need to establish these communities of support prior to disaster; and lastly, the importance of communication prior to and during disaster, with particular attention to scaffolding threat appraisal so responses can be adaptive. This literature review is not a ‘full stop’ on this topic, rather, it is an invitation to begin, or continue, to consider the human experiences of climate change, including any disruption to our society.
You were an expert reviewer for the chapters on psychology in the forthcoming IPCC report. What reflections can you share with us about your experience? (Or what have you learned from that experience?)
The sections that were mental health related were proportionately small and although it’s great to see it included I think we still have a way to go. I’d like to see a shift away from describing mental health in relation to a person’s capacity to contribute economically to society. I’m not sure how useful this definition is during crisis and mass migration, and perhaps may even perpetuate some of the problems within our current mental health system. Overall though, I was pleased to see the multidisciplinary approach and the scope of the health chapters in general. There is a lot more to be included in the way of psychology, however I really think that if more people actually read the health chapters of these reports then they would understand why we need to be discussing the impact of climate change on society, however anthropocentric that can be.
A lot of climate scientists and environmental commentators are saying we mustn’t take away people’s hope and sense of agency. How do you respond?
I see hope and agency as two separate considerations. I’m speaking as a psychologist, so I do not consider it my role to promise hope. It is also not hope that people are seeking support through. I certainly celebrate with someone when they have a sense of hope, but when there is grief, despair, and pain, our role is to hold that space for them and explore the depth of that experience with them. When we try to restore hope in these moments, we do not necessarily remove them from their pain but more so, we can abandon them in their pain. In terms of agency, I would first be interested in understanding what that means to a person. If this means a sense of control, then perhaps what we are really seeing is a fear of ambiguity and vulnerability. Life is full uncertainty and vulnerability. If we learn to recognise these experiences within ourselves, understand our capacity to tolerate these experiences, and then acknowledge the defences we engage in to protect ourselves from this discomfort, we could foster a deeper sense of agency within ourselves, rather than a superficial feeling of agency over the world around us. These may not be the responses that people want to hear to questions of hope and agency, but my focus here is more to do with exploring experiences rather than providing answers.
Huge thanks for the incredible work you’re doing in this area. I’m curious about what the response has been within your field. I’m guessing that there might be a lot of appreciation for the courage in writing so boldly, and perhaps some resistance too.
I share your curiosity about how this type of message will be received. It is political for two reasons; discussing the impact of climate change on society is uncomfortable for people, and in mainstream psychology to encourage deep engagement with our emotional experiences is not the predominant approach. So far, the feedback on the occasional paper has been of encouragement and relief for being honest about how climate change impacts us, but this is predominantly from those already in the climate change space. From mainstream psychology colleagues, the feedback is more related to encouraging the notion of moving away from pathologising emotional experiences. Interestingly, I haven’t received any resistance yet.
As a mum of young children, how do you sustain yourself with working on this difficult topic?
For me it’s about being present. Being present in the day to day routines; the getting ready for school, the chatting about dreams in the morning, the laughing about buttons being done up wrong. Its these small things that we need to be present for. Also being chronologically present. My children, whatever the future holds, will only ever get one childhood and that is right now. And there is so much beauty and joy and connection that we have access to in the here and now. Connection with each other as well as connection with our beautiful earth. We were lucky enough to begin our schooling journey in the UK and attended a Forest School where most of the day was out in nature; rain, snow, or shine. Now we are back in Australia, there isn’t really anything similar in the way of schooling, however we have been on the periphery of initiatives like Wild Movement Perth which holds a similar ethos. And of course, being present to their emotional responses to the climate crisis which, whether we like it or not, they are aware of. My oldest son, lover of oceans, had heard about the oceans warming and jellyfish proliferating and had overheard someone suggesting culling jellyfish. He burst into tears one night and told me about how upset he was at the idea of innocent jellyfish being killed. He sat on my lap sobbing heartbroken tears into my chest. I held him close, and as the sobs began to slow, he looked up at me with fierce eyes. “I am going to become a jellyfish doctor” he told me. “And when they come, I will be there. And I will be ready”. I did not meet his childlike solution with adult logic; he will develop that in his own time. What was happening in that moment was deeper and more magical. His grief, having been held and indulged, had transformed; without any words or prompting from me. Sometimes its these moments that I learn more from, than books and research papers. So maybe there is something about being a mother to young children that sustains me.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am continuing research on emotion; some specifically climate related and some not. I am also focused on my work in private practice and learning as much as I can from my wonderful supervisors.
Jasmine divides her professional time between private practice and academia. She has been working therapeutically with children and adolescents for over 10 years and works predominantly to support families systemically. Jasmine conducts research in emotion theory and group process. Jasmine is also community minded and sits on professional cohorts within co-design steering committees as part of community and organisation program development. When Jasmine is not working she enjoys writing poetry, creating, philosophy, and spending time with her two little boys.
Watch a video of a talk Jasmine gave in March 2021, with Jem Bendell, for Te Ipu Taiao, The Climate Crucible, an event by the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists. In May 2021, Jasmine hosted a webinar on Climate Psychology, for Scholar’s Warning and Climate Justice Union.