Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

No Worries Atoll

5° 53′ 15″ N, 162° 05′ 13” W. Plug in these GPS coordinates, and you will arrive at Palmyra Atoll, one of the Line Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It is 967 nautical miles south of Honolulu and 1,497 miles north of American Samoa. This uninhabited jewel is the only “incorporated, unorganized US territory.” It is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Photo Credit: Kydd Pollock

Last week, I had the adventure of a lifetime celebrating my birthday on Palmyra with a small group of dear friends. With the guidance of dedicated and visionary scientists, it was a fully immersive experience in what is possible when we approach health from an environmental perspective that is rooted in a deep understanding of the dynamic and complex interconnectivity of all living creatures within an ecosystem. As we explored this extraordinarily beautiful postage stamp of land and coral in the middle of the Pacific, I was inspired by the mental health teachings everywhere.

1. Red-Footed Booby. I have to begin with the boobies. White fluffy youth and red-footed adults are flourishing at Palmyra today. That is, flourishing in the parts of the wildlife refuge where the native Pisonia grandis trees are abundant. The red-footed boobies nest in large colonies. Each female lays just one chalky blue egg in a stick nest, the booby pairs share the job of incubating the egg for about 45 days, and then care for their young for 2-3 years until they reach sexual maturity. The survival of each offspring, and the survival of their entire colony, depends on the health and strength of the collective. Same is true for our human experience where social connection is intimately linked to our mental health, including mood, anxiety, purpose, suicide risk and hopefulness.

2. Rats and Coconuts. The Palmyra Atoll was a US naval station during WWII. The government built a military installation that included major alterations to land forms, including blasting and dredging a ship channel from the open sea into the West Lagoon and building an airstrip. When the troops departed, the rats and coconut trees that arrived with them remained. Not native to the atoll, the environment lacked the capacity to keep the population growth of these species in check. Rats consumed the seedlings of the native Pisonia grandis trees that are the nesting homes for red-footed boobies, and coconut trees do not provide good nesting habitats for these seabirds. By the time The Nature Conservancy and Fish and Wildlife Service assumed responsibility for the atoll, the ecosystem was so out whack that no Pisona grandis seedlings were found in environmental research plots. This meant no nesting for seabirds as well. In the world of environmental science, this is a story of invasive species. In our human experience, we have ample examples of foreign intrusion on communities and violation of indigenous culture that have resulted in profound assault on the mental health of existing communities. Consider, for example, the profound mental health impacts of colonization in Africa and the destruction of indigenous communities in North America and elsewhere.

3. Guano. A.K.A. bird poop. I gained a deep appreciation for the essential role of bird excrement on this trip. The red-footed boobies and other seabirds find food far out at sea. The nutrients they consume become concentrated, and the phosphate-rich guano coats the trees and shoreline until the rain washes it back into the sea. These nutrients are essential for plants to grow so the marine life, including nearby coral reefs benefit greatly from the seabirds’ contributions. Who would have imagined? It reminds me of life’s stresses and challenges. We might wish that they would stay away, but in fact, when delivered in healthy doses, these are exactly the life experiences that help us learn more about ourselves and grow our coping capacities, deepen our empathy, enhance our sense of agency – all ultimately shoring up our mental health.

4. Coral Reef. Atolls are defined by the presence of a ring of coral. The geological formation of an atoll represents a long and dynamic story, beginning with volcanic activity. Over millions of years volcanos can become submerged or underwater volcanos can grow. In either case, the ring of coral grows around the perimeter of the cauldron and an open lagoon forms with coral all around. The colors, designs, and variation of coral and resident marine life is truly vast and spectacular. The coral is the headliner of the Palmyra Atoll. What is especially remarkable is that this healthy and thriving world was threatened with extinction in 2015 when over 90% of the Palmyra coral was bleached by the warmest water temperatures in the atoll’s recorded history. In subsequent years, The Nature Conservancy and Scripps researchers studied the aftermath of the bleaching and celebrated its nearly complete recovery in less than five years. I am reminded of work that we do in global mental health and disaster relief. Time and again, we see that the strongest predictor of mental health resilience and recovery in the face of disaster is not what we do after tragedy strikes, but rather how well and healthy individuals and communities are before disaster hits.

5. Green Sea Turtles. These marine animals are my personal favorite. My heart skips a beat every time I see one swim by or poke its head up for air as I visit their world with snorkel and fins. I love the idea that they carry their homes on their backs. The essence of “home is where the heart is.” Many marine turtles are endangered or threatened around the world. Palmyra’s Green Sea Turtles travel through diverse ecosystems, including estuaries, coasts, and open oceans. They serve as prey for some species of sharks, consume other marine life, and transport nutrients. Some researchers consider them sentinel species with respect to the health of coastal environments, but the role of sea turtles in the marine ecosystem remains largely mysterious. Maybe that’s part of why I love them. They leave me in awe and filled with joy, both good for my mental health.

The Palmyra Atoll is a tiny speck on the globe that tells a universal story of community. It was a banner birthday, with no “worries atoll.” It was also a hopeful reminder of the potential for extraordinary health and beauty when we recognize and respect the intimate and fragile connections that link us all.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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