Climate Impacts on the Mental Health and Wellness of British Columbians

The virtual Café Scientifique examines the interconnected nature of the climate crisis and mental health

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Illustration courtesy of Sonny Ross / The Guardian.

Written by: Charlene Aviles, Peak Associate

At Climate Impacts on the Mental Health and Wellness of British Columbians, the discussion on environmental degradation, mental health, and social injustices confronted the traditional narrative of the climate crisis. By identifying proactive ways to combat the climate crisis and in turn, related mental health problems, the speakers challenged school curriculums to transition from messages of pessimism to optimism.

The event featured speakers Abhay Sachal, Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, Dr. Maya Gislason, and Elder Valerie Nicholson. A collaboration between the B.C. Centre for Excellence on HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE), Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, and SFU, the talk addressed the relationship between the climate crisis and mental health.

Overwhelming Nature of the Climate Crisis

Abhay Sachal, Break The Divide’s co-founder and executive director began his activism with the Students on Ice Foundation Arctic expedition. As Sachal observed the melting ice, he felt “inundated by feelings of hopelessness and anxiety.” Overwhelmed by the consequences of rising global temperatures, he consulted his Inuit peers to learn how they adapted. Together with his brother Sukhmeet, they founded Break The Divide to facilitate discussions between secondary students in Inuvik, the Northwest Territories, and Delta, B.C. This, he said, allowed them to feel more connected and talk about their feelings around climate change.

Then, once again, in September 2020, Sachal found himself facing the same feelings of despair he’d felt during the Artic expedition. This time, the trigger was all of the smoke from California wildfires which he noticed during his run. He recalled the experiences of other climate activists who had felt the same way. Many of them had expressed that “the root cause of many of these stressors [ . . . ] is [sic] the political inaction that they see.”

Sachal admitted that climate activists often struggle with burnout but encouraged them to remember the amazing work being done on both climate change and mental health. “For me, the level of hope that I often experience comes from this idea of empathy for oneself, empathy for others, and empathy for the planet.” He advised environmentalists who combine “optimism with action” to take breaks and nurture their support networks.

The Indigenous Experience of the Climate Crisis

Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, founding dean of the School of Arctic and Subarctic Studies at Memorial University, presented on her research in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, where she studiedthe ways in which climate change is impacting Inuit lives, livelihoods, culture, and mental wellness.”

According to the Inuit community members she interviewed, the land is a “generational connection to both yourself and others” because it plays a crucial role in culture. 

Due to the research participants’ emotional connection and identification with the land, they also emphasized the land’s healing properties. Conversely, they attributed illness to the land deteriorating. 

Among those susceptible to the consequences of the climate crisis are youth, Indigenous peoples, women, the elderly, and those with low socio-economic status. For example, the increasing urbanization in northern Canada and Labrador disproportionately affects the Inuit who are “at the front lines of climate change.”  

Because the Inuit depend on the land for their basic needs, the effects of the climate crisis in Labrador (i.e. increased temperatures, melting sea ice, and permafrost warming) pose challenges for survival, health, and cultural traditions. According to Cunsolo, climate-sensitive mental health outcomes include anxiety, substance abuse, suicide, and “place-based loss.” The climate crisis interrupts the dissemination of cultural knowledge, which results in place-based loss as many Indigenous cultural practices and traditions are connected to land and to place.

Elder Valerie Nicholson, Peer Indigenous Research Associate at the BC-CfE, was asked about her work with YouthCo and their HIV leadership program for youth, Camp Moomba. She shared her wisdom from her Mi’kmaq, Haida, Roma, and English cultures, describing how her grandfather was a source of knowledge on nature and respect. 

She asserted that residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and treaties resulted in Indigenous peoples knowledge of the land being “interrupted and disrupted through colonization,” as the cycle of sharing knowledge was impeded.

Dr. Gislason, an SFU health sciences assistant professor who specializes in health equity, also urged the importance of Indigenous elders who mentored children to become advocates and nurture their cultural and ancestral connection to the land.

In response to an audience member’s question, “What are your thoughts on the idea of anger at people who don’t share our same grief?” Nicholson explained that her cultures promote educating others instead of anger. She added, “We have to be strength-based. Anger will only pull everything down. For me, negativity is a bully that eats away at you, and you can’t carry that.”

Given that grief is a common response to the climate crisis, Cunsolo suggested that environmentalists use it to mobilize themselves and others. According to her, “Grief is an incredible gift, if we’re open to it because we only grieve what we love. If we love something, then it’s worth fighting for.”

Her cultural heritage also shapes her approach to “re-search.” “When we use the word re-search, we actually hyphenate that word because it’s already been there for us. We just have to search again for it, bring that back and to bring that connection back to ourselves, and interconnect ourselves in this beautiful web of life,” Nicholson illustrated.

The Impacts of the Climate Crisis on Children

Dr. Gislason noted that the report, “A future of the world’s children? A WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission,” recommended that Sustainable Development Goals prioritize children’s health and safety. According to the commission, “Children are key stakeholders in an interconnected web of rights and responsibilities, which binds humanity together and to our planet in a shared endeavour of mutual care.”

Like Dr. Cunsolo, Dr. Gislason agreed that the climate crisis is a health and social justice issue because it affects all developmental stages and exacerbates pre-existing injustices. She provided the audience with several calls to action to combat children’s mental health problems associated with the climate crisis: 

  • Accept and reflect on our feelings and contributions to the climate crisis
  • Persevere by implementing lifestyle changes
  • Actively listen to children’s concerns
  • Engage in community-led interventions
  • Cultivate children’s connection with nature by exposing them to the outdoors 
  • Implement an age-appropriate curriculum that equips children to be resilient

At the heart of her work was the concept that “grounded hope can help us not just bounce back, but bounce forward.” 

Final Thoughts

Because the climate crisis impacts physical and mental health, these keynote speakers emphasized the need for reform and the changing narrative on the climate crisis. To alleviate the emotional distress resulting from the crisis, activists encourage others to conserve the environment in all aspects of their lives, whether it is through education, family, or culture.