Climate change is damaging our mental health. These researchers want to help


When Kiffer Card and his colleagues noticed a gap in research on the effects of climate change on the mental health of Canadians, they decided to fill it.

In January, Card and a team of researchers from the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance published a study which found that the 2021 British Columbia heating dome triggered a 13% increase in climate change anxiety among people living in that province.

And this research is part of a growing movement to understand the link between climate change and mental health – and how new phenomena like climate anxiety could be mitigated.

“I hope we can stimulate both investment in public and mental health and encourage politicians to recognize that it has an effect on people’s daily lives,” said Card, assistant professor of health sciences.

Now it’s part of a year-long project at Simon Fraser University to see if social media can be used to monitor the ebbs and flows of climate anxiety – while analyzing the frequency of word use. -keys related to the condition.

Young protesters hold signs as they attend a climate change protest organized by ‘Youth Strike 4 Climate’ in London, England, in 2019. Young people understand the risks of climate change, researchers say, and this creates stress. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

“It’s not really on a personal level, but it’s really to describe the ecosystem and how it changes over time, in terms of this online digital world,” Card said of what the are believed to be one of the first projects to attempt to quantify climate anxiety on a pan-Canadian scale.

The aim of the study is to create a monitoring system that could be used by health care providers, crisis centers or climate activists, which would inform them of peaks in climate anxiety as seen on social networks.

If therapists see an increase in climate anxiety following a natural disaster and they know of a patient struggling with that symptom, they might choose to monitor them, Card said.

“You can text or contact them to make sure they’re okay,” he said.

He notes that the project isn’t perfect – and that some communities that might be more vulnerable to climate change might not be reflected on social media.

The challenges of obtaining data

A challenge in collecting accurate data on climate anxiety is figuring out how to describe it — not all communities use words like “ecological grief or climate anxiety,” said Deninu K’ First Nation member Nicole Redvers. eu.

“At the Indigenous community level, this is sometimes presented as grief and loss,” said Redvers, also an assistant professor of Indigenous health at the University of North Dakota.

“There is a continuing loss as opposed to something imminent in the future for someone who has never experienced loss of land or the historical and contemporary trauma that accompanies it.”

Beyond language, there are issues of access to the data collected.

Redvers said communities in the Northwest Territories often won’t have access to or ownership of mental health data collected by the federal or territorial governments.

“They don’t even get feedback on major issues affecting their community,” Redvers said.

According to Redvers, access to data is crucial for communities to understand how experiences — from childhood and intergenerational trauma — can make people more susceptible to additional trauma, such as that caused by climate change.

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm says Indigenous peoples have been warning about climate change for more than a century. (Mia Sheldon/CBC)

This is one of the reasons why the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon, is developing a census based on an index of happiness and well-being.

It is believed to be the first First Nation to do so.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm said the community hopes to distribute the census in 2023. Data collected will focus on mental health, including the relationship between climate change and community mental wellbeing.

Climate anxiety, and how it is understood in the Western context, is a tool for “bringing non-Natives into the Native experience,” Tizya-Tramm said.

“With your understanding of climate anxiety, I can take you back to the early 20th century when our people were warning miners to damage the permafrost,” he said.

“Our people literally told them, ‘When you drill holes in the ground, it will crack, and then hot air will come in and the earth will melt and collapse.”

Young people and climate anxiety

In southern Ontario, other researchers are trying to understand how young people can best manage their climate anxiety.

UNICEF Annual Bulletin, released in May, ranked Canada 28th out of 39 developed countries when it comes to the overall environmental well-being of children and youth. However, Canada ranked second in youth environmental knowledge.

“Basically, we have a lot of kids who are really aware that we’re not doing enough to fight climate change. It’s a perfect illustration of why climate change is causing so much anxiety to our young people,” said Anna Gunz, pediatric intensive care physician. at the London Health Sciences Centre, where she focuses on how the climate crisis is affecting children.

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Gunz is working on a pilot program with the Global MINDS Collective to see if mindfulness practices could help teens affected by climate anxiety.

“It’s really going to be about what they find useful or not,” Gunz said.

The path to follow

However, there are already studied strategies to alleviate the mental distress that can accompany climate change.

In February, the federal government released a study which includes a list of resources communities can use to improve mental well-being and reduce climate anxiety, including a Post-Disaster Mental Health Impact Monitoring Toolkit developed by the National Institute of Public Health of Quebec.

And the way we communicate about climate change can be one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety related to it, said Katie Hayes, lead author of the study.

“If we don’t link climate change risk communications with the actions we can take, it can increase people’s anxiety a lot,” she said.

Building a sense of community and belonging also has mental health benefits, from participating in climate activism to community events, Hayes said.

“There is a lot of research that can still be done in this area – not only continuing to identify climate anxiety issues, but also what we can do about it.”


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