What’s missing in climate change discussion? The certainty of trauma…and building resilience


This spring, a group of more than 160 mental health professionals, resilience-building specialists and mindfulness teachers officially launched the International Transformational Resilience Coalition. Their goal is a challenging one: to raise awareness of how climate change traumatizes communities around the world. The group’s mission is to not only educate the mental health field about this threat, but to also provide preventive solutions before disaster strikes.

The initiative was first envisioned by Bob Doppelt, executive director of The Resource Innovation Group, an BobDoppelt2Oregon-based nonprofit that works across the U.S. to develop new approaches to social-ecological problems, including climate change. Doppelt said that efforts to mitigate climate change have focused on external aspects like fixing and improving infrastructure and developing new forecasting models.

“And throughout all of that work,” he said, “it dawned on me that we were missing what is likely to be the most important issue facing us, and that is the human response to climate change.”

Doppelt said he’d seen this firsthand after Hurricane Sandy devastated communities in southeast Florida, a region where The Resource Innovation Group played a key role in helping the government address climate change readiness. Trained as a counseling psychologist, Doppelt decided that it was essential to develop programs for teaching people how to become resilient as they faced the acute trauma and chronic stress brought on by climate change.

A year-and-a-half ago, The Resource Innovation Group launched its own program to teach mindfulness skills to individuals, organizations and community leaders across the country. The premise is that everyone will need coping techniques as climate change disrupts communities in both profound and subtle ways.

Yet, resiliency is a word that Doppelt uses carefully. “We came up with the term transformational resilience because in many cases the impacts of climate change mean there is no going back to pre-crisis conditions,” he said.

Doppelt also realized that this approach needed an entire network of dedicated mental health and mindfulness professionals – not just one organization like his championing the cause. That’s when he helped organize nearly two dozen founding members, including Dr. Sandra Bloom, co-creator of the Sanctuary Model, and Elaine Miller-Karas, executive director and co-founder, Trauma Resource Institute.

From those early conversations, Doppelt and the others decided to launch a broad coalition to develop policies, conduct research and implement “psychosocial resilience-building” programs.

So far, the coalition has held webinars for ITRC members and begun to investigate new policy options.

Doppelt said that one of the coalition’s long-term goals is to create a new model for cultivating resilience in communities long before climate-related trauma occurs—an approach that is not widespread in the mental health field.

“That’s one of the greatest challenges we face,” he said, “not only getting people to focus on the effects of climate change, but also helping them realize we won’t be successful if we think about resiliency building as we have in the past.”

Several of the co-founding members talked to ACEs Too High about their involvement in the coalition. Their responses, edited for clarity and length, are included below.

BloomDr. Sandra Bloom, Associate Professor, Health Management and Policy, Drexel University School of Public Health, and co-creator of the Sanctuary Model

Q: Why did you join?
A: I was humbled by the work that [Bob Doppelt] was doing and his willingness to engage with this subject, which I had been avoiding because it’s so overwhelming. That to me was such a mirror of my 30-year ago revelation about the incidence of childhood maltreatment in the adults that we were treating. It’s the same thing: There’s massive denial and then you see it, and then what do you do?

I already committed my passion to that [field of work] 30 years ago and here’s this guy saying, “I need your help, will you participate?” Because of the work I’ve done and what I’ve learned from survivors I’ve worked with, I can’t in good conscience say no. But this is not a topic I said, “Oh goody, let me work on this.” I read the [research on climate change], and it made me sick to my stomach. I know exactly why people stay in denial about this stuff—it makes you sick not to. What the survivors I worked with taught me was that if they could go through everything they went through and stay alive and commit themselves to getting better, and do something better for the world, how could I stay in my cocoon? It was the same thing with this.

Q: Why is this group important?
A: You need a core group of people to get something moving and the core group of people in this case really needs to be interdisciplinary. There’s no way we can deal with this issue as a specialty issue. It has to be more of a public health approach. It means you have every stakeholder possible in a conversation.

Q: What aspect of the ITRC are you most interested in?
A: What I’m most interested in is using the whole Sanctuary Model method—we’ve worked with over 300 organizations. I’m really interested in that next leap. Can what we’ve learned from creating safety within organizations be applied to whole communities and what would that look like? How would that be done? How would you modify the materials to make it more useful on a public level? That’s what I think I bring to the table and what I’m most interested in.

Q: What can this group accomplish?
A: I think the goal is really to seed a movement. It takes organization and some groups to get that going so you’re not reduplicating efforts and reinventing the wheel all the time. You need a central focus where people have an opportunity to come together, to share ideas, to build momentum. That’s what we’re in the very early stages of.

We saw that in the trauma field. The first meeting of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies in 1985 was really critical to giving people a common place to be. There were people all over the world working with Holocaust survivors, disaster victims, POWs. PTSD has just entered the diagnostic bible for psychiatry in 1980. [The ISTSS] was bringing together all the people doing post-combat work and those of working with domestic violence and crime victims. There had not been a place for all of those people working in different disciplines to come together and find a common framework. You have to have that to get a movement going. You have to get a fire gong or the sparks just die.

Because the subject [of climate change] is so aversive, it really requires something to counter-balance it, and what can do that? Relationships. Being a part of something that’s potentially hopeful and getting the support of other people, and that’s why you have to create a movement.

JacquJacqui Patterson, Director, NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program

Q: Why did you join?
A: I joined because of the work I was doing. The communities I work with have real-time impacts of climate change. People have lost lives or have been otherwise affected. They are being displaced by climate change. People are suffering domestic or sexual violence as a result of post-disaster context. We’re helping leaders to build their own resilience to provide assistance to affected community members. For them to deal with compounded trauma from counseling and supporting people dealing with situations—that can be discounted if they aren’t directly impacted themselves.

Q: Why is this group important?
A: Unfortunately there aren’t many groups that are asking this question [about climate change and resilience] or having this conversation. There’s so much talk about financial losses—people are talking about nuts and bolts. Just to have a group that’s even beginning to ask this question, much less putting together a program to provide assistance is important. What’s unique about ITRC is that it looks pro-actively and helps people build up their resilience in advance of the disaster. That’s a very unique niche that the ITRC fills.

Q: What aspect of the ITRC are you most interested in?
A: What I’m doing is really helping connect communities that are differentially impacted by climate change. Whether it’s Gulfport, Mississippi, or Pritchard, Alabama, I’m connecting them to the resources that are brought by the ITRC. I connect people in need with the resources. It’s not just the prospect [of disaster]—these are communities that have already been impacted. They know it’s not just abstract for them. We want to prepare people to better cope when these disasters happen.

Q: What can this group accomplish?
A: One thing is raising awareness about the need to be intentional about building up this kind of emotional resilience. That’s almost in itself a key goal. Even if they accomplish that, it would be amazing. Secondarily, and further to that, having a body of tools for folks to build that resilience, and hopefully as people recognize the importance of looking at this, really being able to spark analysis and research around it. Usually with that comes funding. The tools, the sparking of research and analysis and hopefully greater resources being dedicated to this body of work. And then also just a body of illustrative anecdotes so people can see concretely these sets of impacts and how these tools and practices can actually mitigate the impacts. Also a bigger network of people who are addressing these impacts, and to provide peer support to each other, and spread the word about the types of interventions are available.

ElaineElaine Miller-Karas, Executive Director and co-founder, Trauma Resource Institute and co-creator of the Trauma Resilience Model and Community Resilience Model

Q: Why did you join?
A: Bob [Doppelt] first approached me because he was looking for different models that could be brought to different communities around the world. He asked me to be part of the faculty to develop a pilot for communities around the country to see whether or not people in our broader network would be interested in coming to do a course like this to build a prevention model.

The Trauma Resource Institute mission is to create capacity in local communities, teaching them about our biological-based model. What we’re all trying to do is create this thing that can potentially affect a lot of people. It’s very exciting.

Q: Why is this group important?
A: This group is important because we’re creating a coalition of like-minded people who are doing their own interventions and have their own philosophies, but we have a common philosophy of prevention. Secondly, I think we also need to have a triage system of care. We would train people to identify those who need help they cannot provide. They would know how to access the system of mental health care in their community. There are many places in our own country and around the world that have no such thing. That’s where I think we have to think out of the box.

Q: What aspect of the ITRC are you most interested in?
A: With our Community Resilience Model I’m already training people and we have our materials translated into many languages. We have to be culturally aware. I did a big project that was funded through the California Mental Health Services Act. There were seven underserved groups and one was African American. When we met with the African-American community, I could tell they were a little reluctant. We did the training on mindfulness-based stress reduction and they really loved it. But I think we have to have menu options for people. I learned from that particular group of African Americans, who were Christian-based, that they believed that mindfulness-based stress reduction was connected to Buddhism. Sometimes those of us involved in mental health lose our perspective. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is good, but it’s only one avenue. I think we need multiple avenues. It’s a cultural lens that has to look at different faith-based perspectives.

Q: What can this group accomplish?
A: I think when you have like-minded people and you can collaborate with people, that you can change the world. It’s like the Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  I think that’s possible with the mindset we have right now, in bringing innovation in mental health to not only our U.S. community, but also our global community. The more we can share these interventions that are simple and easy to learn, that can expand our capacity to reduce the effects of trauma.

Cheryl Sharp

Cheryl Sharp

Cheryl Sharp, Senior Advisor for Trauma Informed Services; Linda Ligenza, Director of Clinical Services, National Council For Behavioral Health.

Q: Why did you join?
Linda: I was partly interested because of my background in disaster behavioral health. I worked with [the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration] for many years and closely with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] on the crisis counseling program. This work [by the coalition] really centers around the same kind of goals that were involved in the crisis counseling program and that is: How do you build resilience communities and promote resilience in individuals as well buffer them for the possibility or impending changes of effects of climate change as well as disaster situations? There was a real connection there to my previous work and certainly my interest in promoting resilient individuals and communities. It ties in, of course, with the work that Cheryl and I do with the National Council. Through our trauma-informed care efforts around the country, and with many organizations around the country, we are again promoting the goal of building individual and community resilience. That’s what drew me to this work.

Cheryl: There is the whole trauma piece, but for me, I have also been very concerned about environment for many years. What I really appreciated about this work is that it ties both of those pieces together and looks at who we are as a community and who we are as part of a global community. Having experienced some of the things that I believe are climate reactions and watching what happens to a community, it just absolutely made sense. The other piece is the whole idea of thinking of building resilience after the fact. Resilience needs to be something that’s built in the front.


Linda Ligenza

Q: Why is this group important?
Linda: I think that traditionally mental health centers think about how to promote healing and recovery and the population of people they work with. They think about how to respond after disasters, but I think this group brings a unique perspective to the issues around climate change in prevention and promoting resilience so that people are better able to bounce back. They are looking at it from a prevention perspective rather than a response to an event. I think this work is so important because it cuts across many other areas of behavioral health and wellness for our general population. We know that there are lots of people who are suffering, have trauma history, experience poverty, and this is something that can help all communities and cuts across all the work I think we’re all involved in and want to foster. I think it’s really important and has a place in the work he do in behavioral health.

Cheryl: I think the other piece is that it takes it out of the experience of mental illness challenges and puts it in real life terms for anyone. It takes away the otherness. This is going to impact everyone…and I don’t think the general public gets that. I think around our provider population, one of the things that can happen [through the coalition’s work] is that it puts them in a leadership role in their community where they are thinking bigger picture.

Q: What aspect of the ITRC are you most interested in?
Linda: I think that, for one thing, we can learn from the work that this group is doing in terms of the principles, interventions, techniques, tools and those kinds of things. We can borrow from what they’re doing and teaching, and apply it to the work we’re doing in terms of trauma-informed care. On the other hand, I think that we can also, through our work at the National Council, promote the work of the ITRC. As a matter of fact, we’re working on setting up a webinar now. Also, I think we can share based on our experiences and what we know about building resilience with the ITRC. I think there’s a real sharing there of information, learning from each other, and that’s really important and valuable.

Cheryl: [The coalition] creates more community partnerships that are broader reaching. We all end up so siloed, and I think this project starts tearing away some of the silos.

Q: What can this group accomplish?
Cheryl: What I think this project can do as it builds is heighten the understanding of creating resilient communities. I think [the coalition] has a tremendous opportunity to build partnerships that have not been there in the past. When you think about what happens when you have a community with a huge disaster like a Sandy Hook [shooting], the way those events can pull a community together—every part of the community begins to understand the interconnectedness. I think that’s where we’ve lost so much as a country—whatever it is that we do, we are isolated. This is something that could have impact on building resilient communities, but it takes the whole village and not just one sector.

Linda: I think that the area of prevention is really one that we kind of struggle with. We’re talking here about not waiting for the [next tragedy] to jump in and work with communities. We’re talking about going into communities, building awareness and teaching people skills they can use to help people deal with adverse experiences. That really translates not only to issues around climate change and the impact of climate change but it also relates to community events like a Columbine [shooting], disaster situations and personal adverse experiences. This work has implications for people’s ability to deal with both personal and community events. It’s not waiting until after they happen but working to build before those things happen.

8 responses

  1. Pingback: Building human resilience for climate change addressed at Washington, DC, conference « ACEs Too High

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  3. I am glad to see organizations like this appearing. As humans, we seem to create a lot of stress and trauma in this world, and the paradigm we use to deal with it is showing it’s weakness.

    I deal with it on the back side to some degree. With emergency responders, we are trying to get them to be proactive in stress and trauma release, which is what we teach. If however the situation is such that after the event is when I get an invite, so be it. Better late than never to learn the proper tool to discharge stress and trauma. We are discovering that resilience is what comes from successfully discharging tension and trauma. Hence, our business, Raise Your Resilience. Add the www at the front and the dot com at the back, and you can check us out.

    Moving forward together,

    Leckey Harrison


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  6. Rebecca thank you for this great article and helping me to recognize that we need to find ways to include environmental sector in our work to reduce ACEs and build resilience in Philadelphia.


  7. Pingback: How Wild Weather Adversely Impacts Your Brain | Brady on the Brain

  8. Building resilience is paramount to coping with the trauma of events brought about by climate change. I know first hand from being visited by Hurricane Francis and Hurricane Jean in the summer of ’05.


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