‘People talk about deep sadness:’ Scientists study climate change grief

‘People talk about deep sadness:’ Scientists study climate change grief

Some call it environmental grief, some call it solastalgia — a word coined for a feeling of homesickness when home changes around you.

His canvases are painted from first-hand observation by a brush wielded in the outdoors and glow with the colours of the Canadian wilderness.

But British Columbia artist Dominik Modlinski doesn’t take his paints into the woods much anymore.

“I felt I can’t go on my painting trips because everything is covered in smoke,” he said. “I can’t go to some areas I love to go because you can’t see anything.

“I feel somebody is controlling my life and I can’t do anything about it. It does affect my mood.”

Mental-health researchers around the world are taking notice of what people feel when the world they’ve always known changes gradually or suddenly from climate change. Some call it environmental grief, some call it solastalgia — a word coined for a feeling of homesickness when home changes around you.

The American Psychological Association has released a lengthy report into solastalgia. So has the British medical journal The Lancet. Australian farmers report rising levels of depression as their drought-stricken lands blow away. An international group of climate scientists maintain a website entitled Is This How You Feel?

House of Commons committees have discussed it. Health Canada is exploring the topic.

“It is gaining more traction,” said researcher Katie Hayes from the University of Toronto.

Read more: UN chief returns as climate talks teeter closer to collapse

Read more: ‘Bit frightening:’ Study finds most Canadian cities fail on climate change plans

In Canada, Memorial University professor Ashlee Cunsolo released a paper in 2013 on Inuit in the tiny Labrador community of Rigolet. People spoke of the sorrow they felt about being cut off from places they’d visited for generations because of vanishing sea ice.

“People talked about deep sadness,” Cunsolo said. ”People talked about anxiety. A lot of different words for pain. A lot of trembling in the voice. There were definitely tears. People were feeling displaced in their homes.”

Sometimes it happens slowly, sometimes all at once. Hayes has been looking into the effects of the 2013 flood in High River, Alta., the sort of catastrophic event that is expected to occur more and more.

“There are still lingering effects from the flood,” she said. “There’s anxiety when it rains, on the anniversary, as (people) cross the bridge to go into High River.”

Kids crawl into bed with mom and dad when the clouds open. People thinking about that box of Christmas decorations in the basement catch themselves when they realize it’s gone.

“People would talk about the smell of musty moldiness or the sound of a generator coming on. It gets them welled up. It gets them nervous. It gets them recalling the flood, everything that they lost.”

A University of Alberta study found similar effects 18 months after the wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., that destroyed one-tenth of the city. A survey of visitors to health-care facilities found high levels of post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders as well as substance abuse.

“We’re looking at broader psycho-social impacts, things like weakened social ties or increased addictions or even increased aggression in relation to domestic violence,” said Peter Berry, science adviser at Health Canada. “Some of the impacts can take place right away or take months or even years.”

Nor are disasters the only way weather related to climate change can cause stress.

“Volatility,” said Ron Bonnett of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. “What we’re seeing is a lot more variation than we did in the past.”

Farmers can endure months without rain, then see their fields submerged in a cloudburst. More than just a business, farms are a home and a tradition and that can raise the mental stakes, Bonnett said.

“There’s almost a mental block: ‘What do I do next? How do I make a decision?’ You’re just paralyzed. All you can see is that crop lying out there that you can’t get off.”

The words ”paralyzed” and “powerless” come up often when solastalgia is discussed. Feeling there’s nothing you can do is doubly corrosive, said Julia Payson of the Canadian Mental Health Association in B.C.’s Okanagan region, where fires and evacuations have been a constant feature of recent summers.

“Powerlessness tells you you can’t fix this and you’re not going to stop feeling bad. There’s no point in reaching out, in gathering with community and seeing what you can do.”

In fact, she said reaching out is one of the best ways of coping.

“Powerlessness breeds a feeling of isolation and when we can break that down by building community, it makes a huge difference.

“We acknowledge our feelings. We know it’s important to have them. We look for people to support us, we look for actions we can take to take back a feeling of control.”

Great advice, said Thomas Doherty, who has a mental-health practice in Portland, Ore., that helps people feeling environmental grief.

People can feel like a “climate hostage” trapped by avalanches of information with little action from their leaders. Doherty suggests finding a way to get involved and do something.

He has another prescription: get outside.

“It is part of the coping. It gets you in touch with life, with things that are larger than you.”

But until things change, get used to solastalgia, said Modlinski.

“As an artist who paints the Canadian North, I have witnessed the slow, creeping climate change that is happening. The emotional environmental grief I feel will be a widespread anxiety. It’s going to happen.

“I don’t think our health system is even prepared to deal with it.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

The Northern Sea Wolf is set to arrive in Bella Coola June 19 and BCVT remains cautiously optimistic for a more “normal” 2021 season (Michael Wigle photo)
Summer ferry service to Bella Coola to start June 19

“We are optimistic for a good tourist season.”

A Category 3 fire ban will go into effect across the entire Cariboo Fire Centre beginning noon on Monday, June 21. (Pixaby photo)
Category 3 fire ban extends across entire Cariboo Fire Centre June 21

Campfires are still permitted, but no larger than half a metre high by half a metre wide

St. Joseph's Mission site is located about six kilometres from Williams Lake First Nation. (Photo submitted)
Williams Lake First Nation planning ground analysis of land near former residential school

St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School operated from 1886 to 1981

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

New research suggests wolves can be steered away from the endangered caribou herds they prey on by making the man-made trails they use to hunt harder to move along. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Culling cutlines, not B.C. wolves, key to preserving caribou herds: researcher

The government has turned to killing hundreds of wolves in an effort to keep caribou around

Gary Abbott (left) and Louis De Jaeger were two of the organizers for the 2014 Spirit of the People Powwow in Chilliwack. Monday, June 21, 2021 is Indigenous Peoples Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of June 20 to 26

Indigenous Peoples Day, Take Your Dog to Work Day, Onion Rings Day all coming up this week

Gwen Spencer Hethey with her uncle and mentor Major Frederick Richardson. (Courtesy of Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame)
‘She was a killer’: The B.C. woman who pioneered female sharpshooting

Gwen Spencer Hethey made military men ‘look like turkeys’ says her son

Central Okanagan Grade 12 grads are set to get $500 each after a more than $1 million donation from a Kelowna couple. (File photo)
B.C. couple donating $500 to every Grade 12 student in the Okanagan

Anonymous donors identified as Kelowna entrepreneurs Lance and Tammy Torgerson

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Rita Coolidge played the main stage at Vancouver Island Musicfest in 2017. (Black Press file photo)
This year’s Vancouver Island MusicFest to virtually showcase beauty of Comox Valley

Returning July 9 through 11 with more than 25 hours of music performances

British Columbia’s premier says he’s received a second dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. (Twitter/John Horgan)
B.C. premier gets 2nd dose of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

John Horgan shared a photo of himself on social media Friday afternoon holding a completed vaccination card

A lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS
No winning ticket sold for Friday’s $70 million Lotto Max jackpot

The huge jackpot has remained unclaimed for several weeks now

Most Read