November 4, 2020

Following breath in the Capitalocene and other reflections on environmental-health related psychological distress

Garret Barnwell

We are interconnected to place through our breath. Our lungs expand to the world around us and contract to the distress that we feel. Panic, for instance, changes the way that we relate to breath. A rapid pounding heart is often accompanied by shortness of breath. Breath has also always played a role in healing professions and has come to notoriety with the mindfulness movement in psychology. Yet, in our relationship with breath, we sometimes forget that the world becomes embodied within us when we breathe in. Garret Barnwell is a clinical psychologist who has explored the psychological distress associated with environmental degradation. In this oral presentation, Barnwell will share reflections about community experiences of climate and health-related distress. He cautions that we need to be aware of how psychological distress is framed in these settings, commenting on the popularised terms “climate anxieties” and suggests that following breath can lead us to properly attributing climate and environmental-health related distress to structural violence. Through this thinking, we find new ways of addressing psychological distress, finding ourselves rather in conversation environmental policy failures and ongoing environmental injustices.


Garret Barnwell

About Garret Barnwell

Garret Barnwell is a clinical psychologist, South African Medical Research Council scholar and PhD candidate at Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape. His current research focuses on community psychological responses to land and environmental injustices in the North West, Limpopo and Western Cape provinces. He adopts a critical approach, attributing experiences of distress to ongoing structural violence that communities encounter in extractive zones, such as mining and pine plantations. He also runs a private practice in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he offers psychological services to individuals and civil society organisations seeking ecopsychosocial reports, training or group work.