‘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

Almost every health region in the province saw an increase in overdose calls last year. (Blackpress files)
Overdose call numbers reach five-year-high in Maple Ridge.

BC Emergency Health Services responded to almost 500 local calls in 2020

Cam Blake released his first album called <em>Bad Vacation</em> on Jan. 15. (Special to The News)
Maple Ridge musician releases first album

Cam Blake’s first album, Bad Vacation, released Jan. 15

Members of the Maple Ridge Disc Golf Club team up to update the “frolf” course at Thornhill Park. (Special to The News)
Maple Ridge Disc Golf Club helps upgrade local course

Thornhill Park frisbee links usage has skyrocketed since pandemic

Cody Malawsky at the box lacrosse provincials in 2019. As the highly skilled player adds size he will dominate junior, predicts longtime coach Daren Fridge. (Tim McCormick/Special to The News)
Ridge Meadows Hospice Society volunteer Jill Constable. (Ridge Meadows Hospice Society/Special to The News)
Ridge Meadows Hospice celebrating 25 years

Celebratory White Dove Dinner raising money for support and grief programs

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada, speaks at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
B.C. records 500 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, 14 deaths

Outbreak at Surrey Pretrial jail, two more in health care

A woman writes a message on a memorial mural wall by street artist James “Smokey Devil” Hardy during a memorial to remember victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. paramedics respond to record-breaking number of overdose calls in 2020

On the front lines, COVID-19 has not only led to more calls, but increased the complexity

Eighteen-year-old Aidan Webber died in a marine accident in 2019. He was a Canadian Junior BMX champion from Nanaimo. (Submitted)
Inadequate safety training a factor in teen BMX star’s workplace death in 2019

Aidan Webber was crushed by a barge at a fish farm near Port Hardy

Southern resident killer whales in B.C. waters. Research shows the population’s females are more negatively influenced by vessel traffic than males. (Photo supplied by Ocean Wise Conservation Association)
Female orcas less likely to feed in presence of vessel traffic: study

Research the southern resident population raises concerns over reproduction capacity

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

(Black Press Media files)
Transport Canada not budging on enclosed deck rules, despite calls from BC Ferries union

There have been at least 23 cases of the U.K. variant detected in Canada, four of which are in B.C.

The Elk Valley Hospital is adapting to meet the needs of patients in the Elk Valley.
1-in-5 COVID tests coming back positive in and around Fernie, sparking concern

Dr Ron Clark of Elk Valley Hospital said one in five tests was returning positive for COVID-19

Throughout December, RCMP conducted CounterAttack road checks as police worked to keep roads free of impaired drivers. (BLACK PRESS file photo)
‘You can’t make this stuff up’: Stories from the B.C. CounterAttack campaign

Amusing, yes, but a reminder impaired driving affects ability to drive and to make good decisions

Snow is forecasted to appear in parts of Metro Vancouver this weekend. (Black Press Media files)
Snow forecasted for parts of Lower Mainland this weekend

Environment Canada is predicting flurries and snow from Saturday to Monday evening

Most Read