Susi Moser Highlights Mental Health Concerns of the Sustainability Workforce

Person's face painted with the EarthBy Kyle Willis

Climate change can be a worldwide source of anxiety, depression, and mental exhaustion; this is particularly true for the sustainability workforce, especially those who directly confront its impact. Many researchers, government employees, public safety workers, reporters, and other professionals deal with climate change impacts on a daily basis, but their psychological wellbeing is often dismissed due to the presumed mental resolve that their jobs require. This trend was recently highlighted by Dr. Susanne Moser, Director and Principal Researcher of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting, and a research scholar in the School of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England.    

On March 28th, Dr. Moser gave the keynote address to the 500+ attendees at the 2024 Maine Sustainability & Water Conference, an event organized primarily by the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. Her talk, Adaptive Communities Need Adaptive Minds: Navigating the Psychosocial Challenges of a Planet in Crisis, directly addressed the psychological struggles felt by sustainability professionals.

“I want to invite you to consider the possibility that climate change is sinking into your psyche, one way or another.”

Dr. Moser gave her audience an opportunity to express feelings that are often repressed by the societal expectations of their jobs, and this expression is what she seeks for all sustainability professionals through the Adaptive Mind Project. This project aims to build psychosocial support infrastructure for the sustainability workforce. In doing so, she hopes that future generations of sustainability professionals will have the skills and support to address and cope with these feelings. What follows is a detailed summary of Dr. Moser’s keynote address. If you are interested in hearing her full talk, visit the Mitchell Center’s website here.

The Psychological Experiences of Sustainability Professionals

Dr. Moser began with a metaphorical story of a man who jumps into a river when he sees a drowning woman. As he attempts to warm them both, he sees another person and jumps back in. He asks a passing group to call 911, but he spots another person and jumps into the frigid water once more.

“Trying to deal with the trauma and helping people heal from that is very difficult work. Jumping into the water again and again, to prevent somebody from drowning is probably the constant onslaught that many of us experience.”

We hear about climate issues daily through social media and the news, even about issues that do not directly affect us. Many disastrous climate events, such as large wildfires or floods, rarely make significant headlines for very long due to their increasing frequency.

“It’s chronic repeated exposure to everyone’s worst day, to everyone’s raw and unfiltered existential dread.”

The mental trauma of climate change can directly damage our wellbeing, so it has become more acceptable to discuss its psychological effects. However, this is less likely to be the case for sustainability professionals who are trained to exclude their emotions from their work; those negative emotions could be a potential threat to job security through the loss of respect, credibility, and impact on job performance. However, they need to be able to effectively take care of themselves when their job requires them to take care of others.

“By not dismissing ourselves emotionally, we are stemming this cultural tide which has so eliminated all things related to our emotions.”

The Adaptive Mind Project: Coping Skills for Future Professionals

The Adaptive Mind Project, led by Dr. Moser, seeks to help sustainability professionals better process, accept, and express the psychological impacts of their jobs.

“It’s basically capacity building, for professionals like yourselves, to deal with these impacts that we experience. Restoring ourselves to wholeness in the face of this onslaught of demands on us, but also helping people to learn the skills to heal from trauma and become an agent of transformative change.”

The Project’s focus is not on psychology and counseling, but capacity building, education, and prevention. It is designed to help people in ways that minimize their need for clinical intervention. The project centers on individuals within professional communities who can learn skills which enable them to work to prevent, endure, and resolve “these shocks and stresses that are associated with the constant onslaught.”

The plan for the Adaptive Mind Project’s method is a year-long training program with four sessions of two days each. These sessions will initially emphasize restoration from those onslaughts, before focusing on healing with trauma-related work and transformation. Self-care is not enough, Dr. Moser argues, because it can be overwhelming for individuals to cope with the impacts or threats of climate change. Instead, a sense of community based on mutual understanding needs to be established among sustainability professionals. The training groups will support each other and continue doing so after the sessions have concluded.

Still under development, the training program will include a series of practices for people who want to prepare themselves for careers in this work or adjust their current skill set. The man in Dr. Moser’s metaphorical story cannot keep jumping into the river with no regard for his own safety; sustainability professionals need to know when to rest and consider their own needs to make true progress in the field. Those who work in this space need to confront the impacts of climate change: “with the skills and capacities, as well as the peer and institutional support, to effectively and compassionately face the relentless demands of these converging crises, contribute to healing of traumas, and skillfully support the necessary transformative shifts to a better world.”

Kyle Willis is a Communications Intern with the Mitchell Center. Kyle is a senior undergraduate student majoring in English with a minor in Climate Sciences.