Mind Matters: Pollution, air and otherwise

Once upon a time, I lived in Pittsburgh when my joke was that you had a choice of eating or breathing. When the steel mills were belching, the air was deplorable, but there was work, and food on the table. When the plants would shut down, the labor force would be laid off and while money may have been stretched thin, the air was clear: we could breathe.

During those years a friend taught at an elementary school situated on a hill above one of those steel mills. Because of that location, the smokestacks of the plant were in direct line with the school. She described how horrific the air could be when the bellowing pollution blew her way. Meanwhile, a graduate student in Carnegie-Mellon’s MBA program was delighted to inform me of the work he was doing to prove that the Pittsburgh pollution was “not so bad.” He was taking air quality readings below the smokestacks rather than where children and teachers were suffering its stench. He knew full well how deceitful his data were. His report was legal if not ethical or moral. “All’s fair in business,” he smirked.

Now a study reported in Health & Place and summarized in the APA Monitor finds that there is a correlation between high levels of particulate pollution and psychological distress. Researchers cross-referenced data collected from 6,000 respondents to a national survey on stress symptoms such as hopelessness and sadness against pollution data from various locations. The correlation between pollution and mental distress held “even after controlling for physical, behavioral and socio-economic factors such as chronic health conditions and unemployment.” (APA Monitor on Psychology, February, 2018, “In Brief”)

In the Pittsburgh area in the early 1970s, awareness of air pollution (and water too) was not to be had. Folks lived in the pollution like fish swim in water. I worked at a mental health drop-in clinic for adolescents in one steel mill and coke mill town. As I was driving to work one day, I noticed an adolescent whom I knew walking along the road. I stopped to give him a ride into town and remarked on the pollution—the sky was so thick with smog that the sun couldn’t be seen. My young passenger looked at me with astonishment — “What pollution?” he said. He had been born and raised in that town and he knew no other sky!

We do get acclimated and inured to whatever pollutes our environment until we learn how detrimental it is to both our mental and physical health.

Also, once upon a time, little awareness was given to what pollutes the work environment too—that is, sexual harassment was, like polluted air, accepted as just “the way it is.” Psychologists who study workplace harassment note that “sexual harassment is a pervasive problem with a devastating toll on employee well-being and performance.” (APA Monitor on Psychology, February, 2018) despite all the high profile stories and the Me Too movement, awareness in the workplace, according to psychologists, is slow to grow.

James Campbell Quick, says, “sexual harassment is really not about sex. It’s about power and aggression and manipulation. It’s an abuse of power problem.” Also, although the preponderance of such harassment happens to women, it also happens to men.

However, psychologist Chris Kilmartin notes that sexual harassment often occurs where a top-down power dynamic exists, where men outnumber women and are in superior positions. He suggests that “hiring more women in leadership positions and creating a civil, respectful culture for all employees can help curb the problem.”

I remember my mother telling me how supervisors would grope young women in the cigar factory where she worked. Unfortunately, not much has improved for low wage workers since the 1920’s. Women in low paying, low profile jobs still get short shrift—no Me Too movement for them!

How can this change? Just as for air and water pollution, so too for the workplace pollution of sexual harassment, public awareness and a shift in attitude is called for: “Shifts in cultural attitudes toward sexual harassment may ultimately be the most valuable tool in combating sexual harassment by creating a shared sense of public responsibility and accountability.”

So it is: education and awareness are the first steps to clearing the air — both literally and figuratively — in our skies and in the workplace and in our culture as a whole.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.



Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.