‘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

This dilapidated single-family dwelling at 6735 Eustace Rd. in Sooke will soon be replaced by a two-storey building featuring commercial and residential units. (Kevin Laird - Sooke News Mirror)
Small Eustace Road development gets green light

Development includes retail and housing units

Colin Davidson won $100K on a Set for Life scratch ticket in Sooke. (BCLC photo)
Sooke man does ‘happy dance’ after scratching a $100,000 Set for Life win

Colin Davidson plans to renovate his home and invest in his daughter’s education

Victoria Police Department vehicles outside the headquarters building. VicPD (Black Press Media file photo)
Gorge Waterway’s muddy bank swamps man’s attempt to flee Victoria police

A wanted man got stuck in the Gorge Waterway while fleeing police on June 15

Flowers and candles were laid on the driveway of the Weber home, where Kerri Weber was found dead in November 2020. (Black Press Media file photo)
Langford man to stand trial for death of his wife last November

Ken Weber is charged with second-degree murder of his wife, Kerri Weber

O.K. Industries is building a quarry next to Capital Regional District land, as shown in this map from the rezoning applicaiton. (Photo courtesy District of Highlands)
Millstream Quarry wins again in court against Highlands community’s appeal

Judges rule province not obligated to investigate climate change before issuing permit

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says re-opening B.C.’s border to the U.S. ‘is not in our best interest’ right now. (B.C. Government photo)
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry (B.C. Government photo)
B.C. records 113 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, four deaths

Vaccination of young people rising quickly, near 75 per cent

Marine biologist Rick Harbo pulls a lid from the Ladysmith harbour, which he uses to monitor the presence of native and non-native species in the Ladysmith harbour. (Cole Schisler photo)
Unidentified sponge may be the latest marine species invading Island harbour

Marine biologist finding dozens of alien species in warm-water Ladysmith Harbour, none threatening

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of June 15

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Island Health is bringing a vaccination clinic to Lake Cowichan starting June 23. (Submitted)
Island Health opening COVID-19 vaccine clinic to boost lagging Cowichan Lake numbers

Cowichan Valley West the only Island area under 60 per cent in adult first dose totals

For more than a year, Rene Doyharcabal and a small group of neighbours in Langley’s Brookswood neighbourhood have been going out every evening to show support for first responders by honking horns and banging pots and drums. Now, a neighbour has filed a noise complaint. (Langley Advance Times file)
Noise complaint filed against nightly show of support for health care workers in B.C. city

Langley Township contacted group to advise of complaint, but no immediate action is expected

A nurse prepares a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Yukon Convention Centre in Whitehorse on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Thomas
Vancouver couple pleads guilty to breaking Yukon COVID rules, travelling for vaccine

Chief Judge Michael Cozens agreed with a joint sentencing submission,

An inmate in solitary confinement given lunch on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN/Lars Hagberg
22-hour cap on solitary confinement for youth in custody still too long: B.C. lawyer

Jennifer Metcalfe was horrified to hear a youth had spent a total of 78 straight days in isolation

The discovery of a missing woman’s body in Nanaimo earlier this month is now being treated as homicide, say Nanaimo RCMP. (File photo)
Discovery of woman’s body in downtown Nanaimo now being investigated as a homicide

Amy Watts was found dead near Albert Street and Victoria Crescent on June 3

Most Read