On April 22, 2021, Sustainable Waterloo Region hosted Dr. Katie Hayes for a compelling webinar on Environment and Mental Health: The Rise of Eco Anxiety in a Changing Climate. Dr. Hayes, a Policy Analyst with Health Canada, began by acknowledging how appropriate the topic was for discussion on Earth Day: “a day when we are trying to celebrate the human to nature connection.”
Hayes’ research, focused on the consequences of climate change on mental health, specifically considers the inequitable risks and impacts to marginalized groups.
After introducing the mental health continuum model (which ranges from excelling to in-crisis), Hayes spoke of the importance of locating mental health within the broader context of psychosocial health, emphasizing that place and culture shape our experiences of health.
COVID-19 has made it easier for people to place health issues within a broader framework of medical/physical, mental, and community (pictured below). These intersections demonstrate how climate hazards can compound issues faced by people who are already experiencing health inequities in our society based on race, age, gender, socio economic status, and pre-existing health conditions. These are people who experience environmental racism, or those “down wind, down hill, or downstream.”
One example (of many) that helps show the issue is displacement. While displacement can lead to many negative outcomes (such as distress related to loss of culture and financial hardship), there are also people, due to social, political, or economic conditions, that remain at great risk as they become “trapped populations.”
Affirmative outcomes, however, are possible under the right circumstances. In some post disaster locations there has been evidence of communities banding together with altruism and compassion. This post traumatic growth, characterized by a sense of purpose and meaning, can often co-occur alongside other stressors. A reminder that the issue is complex.
Now, Hayes said, let’s take a deep breath.
Let’s acknowledge that feeling pain due to the state of our climate is a normal response to the projections of worsening climate change. We need to talk about it; and part of normalizing the conversation means identifying new terminology. Researchers and mental health professionals use some of the following to describe the connection between what we’re experiencing emotionally and what we’re experiencing related to our climate:
- Ecoanxiety: sense of worry/anxiousness over the current/impending losses of the environment
- Ecogrief: loss/lament for our current/changing environment come
- Ecoparalysis: feeling immobilized, as if you can’t do anything substantive in time
- Ecoguilt: feeling like perpetrators of the problem
- Solastalgia: feeling homesick when we are in our own environment; longing for what it was like before
Due to the global reach of technology, the potential sufferers could be anyone. In addition to those already mentioned, a few notable affected groups are those who work in the field and children.
So, what do we do about it? Luckily, there are multiple influencing factors that can protect and support our well-being and communities in dealing with the emotional responses:
Hayes detailed some of her research in identifying who is most at risk, potential mental health outcomes, and indicators and measurement tools. Some countries have emerged as leaders in research and assessment, including Australia, U.S., New Zealand, and Canada (which will include for the first time ever a mental health chapter in its upcoming National Climate Change and Health Assessment Report).
Is Action the Antidote to Ecoanxiety?
For many, it can be. Using Greta Thunberg as an example, Hayes noted some of the benefits of environmental activism could include a sense of agency, meaning, and an increase in social connection. On the reverse side, for some front-line activists, with more exposure comes a deepening sense of burnout. In short, there is no “one size fits all approach.”
A wonderful example of coping comes from High River, Alberta: one of the communities most affected by the 2013 Alberta floods. While many residents experienced trauma due to environmental impact, there was a general reluctance to seek formal support systems. The Emotional Safe Spot Campaign was created as a solution. Volunteers within local businesses were trained in psychological first aid. Locations offering support donned an orange sticker on their door and united under the slogan, “any door is the right door.”
When thinking about language, we need to challenge the notion that those on the front lines are “vulnerable populations.” It is a deficits-based approach which ignores the overarching health inequities people are facing. “These are the folks who are often agents of change… who have been adapting [and] experiencing health inequities for decades,” Hayes said. “And this is where so much knowledge and strength and understanding need to come from.”
One last point about adaptation: it shouldn’t replace mitigation. Kind of like how we need both the brakes and the airbag; we need both to create sustainable futures.
Network of Care
Social Environmental Prescribing
SWR’s Executive Director Tova Davidson wrapped up the event with a Q & A. Hayes spoke to the importance of normalizing eco anxiety, and highlighted that there are spaces where these dialogues currently take place. But how do you introduce family and friends to these issues (or worse, climate deniers) in a way that isn’t highly polarizing and politicized? It’s about finding a common language. Some people don’t want to talk about climate change because of fear; and that worry, that anxiety, is the familiar bond we share. If you want to inspire and motivate, start there. Veer away from an alarmist narrative and focus more on action, coming together… and most importantly, hope.