‘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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A Williams Lake area family living on Knife Creek Road lost everything to a house fire on Wednesday, March 3. (Photo submitted)
House fire destroys rural family home south of Williams Lake

The Macdonalds built their home on Knife Creek Road about 30 years ago

A special committee has been appointed to look at reforming B.C.’s police act and is inviting the public to make submissions until April 30, 2021. (Black Press media file)
Public input sought for B.C.’s police act review

Submissions will be accepted until April 30

A new daycare in Tl’etinqox (Anaham) will be located across the road from the Datsan Chugh building. (Tl’etinqox Government Facebook photo)
Daycare approved to be built at Tl’etinqox First Nation

“We’re excited,” said Chief Joe Alphonse

International Women’s Day is March 8. (Internationalwomensday.com)
International Women’s Day 2021: #choosetochallenge

International Women’s Day is marked annually on March 8

Williams Lake Accessibility Advisory Committee chair Maureen Straza is an advocate for others after she experienced a spinal cord injury in 2014. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
‘Come On In’: New program aims to make Williams Lake businesses more accessible

Williams Lake Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC) is leading the project

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

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

Rising accident rates and payout costs have contributed to billion-dollar deficits at ICBC. (Comox Valley Record)
B.C. appealing decision keeping ICBC injury cases in court

David Eby vows to ‘clip wings’ of personal injury lawyers

(Black Press Media files)
Hosts charged, attendees facing COVID fines after Vancouver police bust party at condo

Police had previously received 10 complains about that condo

Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen takes part in an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. A joint federal and B.C. government housing program announced today aims to help people living in up to 25,000 vulnerable households pay their rent. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Federal, B.C. governments announce $517-million rent aid program to help vulnerable

Benefits for those not eligible for B.C.’s Rental Assistance Program or Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters

(BC SPCA)
Is it safe to give your dog some peanut butter? Not always, BC SPCA warns

Some commercial peanut butter ingredients can be harmful to dogs

Health Minister Adrian Dix, front, B.C. Premier John Horgan and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrive for a news conference about the provincial response to the coronavirus, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, March 6, 2020. Pandemic emergency measures have been in place for almost a year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. officials plead for patience as 1.7 million COVID-19 calls flood in

Vaccine registration for 90-plus seniors opened Monday

A West Kootenay man died in an avalanche on March 4 while snowmobiling near Mount Payne, which is indicted by the red flag. Illustration: Google Maps
B.C. father of 3 dead after avalanche in West Kootenay

The man was snowmobiling with a group when incident occurred March 4

Most Read