Up-close view of climate change proves sobering

Dr. Carl Bell steps away from American College of Psychiatrists meeting and gets a jolt


It used to be difficult to conceive of writing about climate change in light of the illnesses we psychiatrists treat. But talking about climate change has become unavoidable. Sometimes, it seems that things weigh heavy on my heart, and I have to write about them – especially when it is serious.

Dr. Carl C. Bell, staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s surgical-medical/psychiatric inpatient unit, and clinical professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of Illinois at Chicago

Dr. Carl C. Bell

David Alan Pollack, MD, has been talking about climate change for some years now, and while I understood his concern, I had yet to see the psychological effects up close and personal. After all, I live in Chicago, and we are surrounded by concrete and asphalt.

Thankfully, I also travel, and I get a chance to get into nature. While in Hawaii at the American College of Psychiatrists annual meeting in February, I went snorkeling in Hanauma Bay. I saw coral and fish. The problem is I have a very vivid memories of snorkeling in that exact same nature preserve, which also was a Marine Life Conservation District in 1972 while I was attending the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting.

The contrast between the two experiences leaves me with a glum, sad, disappointed, heart-broken feeling because it was an intimate and personal experience with climate change. In 1972, I saw every type of coral imaginable: brain coral, club finger coral, elk coral, great star coral, pillar coral, staghorn coral, table coral, and tube coral. If I remember correctly, there were corky sea fingers and sea fans, but not sea turtles. In 1972, I saw bigeyefish, damselfish, doctorfish, filefish, goatfish, gobies, hogfish, lemon butterflyfish, lizardfish, parrottfish, porcupinefish, pufferfish, queen angelfish, rock beauties, sergeant majors, soldierfish, spot-tail spot-tail butterflyfish, Spanish hogfish, squirrelfish, tangs, trunkfish, or any bluehead or yellowhead wrasses.

In 2019, I saw two pieces of coral less that 9 inches in diameter and not a single sea urchin. There were maybe three types of tropical fish that I was unfamiliar with seeing. The difference between what I saw in 1972 and what I saw in 2019 was like the difference between the rain forest in Puerto Rico and the dunes of the Sahara Desert.

Sure, I have heard David talk about the mental health effects of climate change on stress, anxiety, and depression, and I have always thought that he was right. But to see climate change up close and personal is a sobering experience. Lately, I have found myself apologizing to children I know. I apologize to them for being part of the system and process that is destroying the planet – and leaving them with a hot mess.

At this point, it seems to me that we cannot just try to save the planet by being better stewards of our garbage and pointing out measurable indicators of climate change. We need to actively rather than passively try to save the planet. Of course, the question is who will pay for the active efforts to depollute Earth. From what I saw for myself in Hanauma Bay, I don’t think we have much time. So I am hoping that more people will take the issue of climate change seriously.

Dr. Bell is a staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s Medical/Surgical-Psychiatry Inpatient Unit in Chicago, clinical psychiatrist emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, former president/CEO of Community Mental Health Council, and former director of the Institute for Juvenile Research (birthplace of child psychiatry), also in Chicago. Check out Dr. Bell’s new book, “Fetal Alcohol Exposure in the African-American Community,” at

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