In this third instalment of our #VoteForYourHealth series, we look at how climate change and environmental degradation impact our mental health.
As health professionals in Alberta, we see the health impacts of unmet basic needs, as well as environmental changes. When floods threaten Calgary or High River, or wildfires displace northern communities, we see the lasting physical and mental health struggles for families. When air pollution descends in the heat of summer, we treat respiratory conditions and worry about the well-being of isolated seniors. We know how the environment affects our collective health.
“I’m not having kids!”
“Who would? This planet is a dumpster fire.”
This is the rhetoric on social media. This is what we hear from adolescents in our physician offices. This is the unthinkable price of the world they’re inheriting.
Eco-anxiety is defined as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one's future and that of next generations” by the American Psychological Association.
When this organization conducted a survey released in 2020, 48 per cent of young adults (aged 18 to 34) admitted to experiencing eco-anxiety. In Alberta, nearly seven in 10 youth (69 per cent) surveyed felt anxious about the competing needs of the environment and the economy.
And this was before a global pandemic changed their lives further. Sadly, the risk of future pandemics and novel infectious agents only increases along with global temperatures. Humans are intricately connected to our ecosystem — what happens to the wildlife and plant beings in our environment affects us all. The term “environmental numbness” has been in the academic literature since 2011 — this is a collective dissociation, a denial of our overt reality.
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We have piecemeal and insufficient mental health services in this province, especially for children, and this needs to be a priority. Developing a toolkit for coping with stress, bouncing back after a disaster (resilience), and planning for post-traumatic growth is essential for families and communities.
Screening for grief and fear related to climate would help us better quantify the problem. The WHO has recommended governments address the mental health impacts of climate change by integrating climate considerations and action with mental health programs, developing community-based approaches to reduce vulnerabilities, and closing the large funding gap that exists for mental health and psychosocial support.
Solastalgia is the feeling of being homesick in a home that’s become unrecognizable. Given the staggering numbers of disasters linked to climate change that have already taken place in Alberta — from the fires in Fort McMurray to floods in High River — it would be hard to find a person whose mental health hasn’t been affected (one study showed more than half of families had serious effects five years after the flooding).
Thousands displaced as rivers rise. PTSD from having lost all your belongings, your home, or a pet. Turning to substances to numb fear or forget painful past experiences, our dangerous addiction epidemic is a direct reflection of our lack of security — environmental and otherwise.
First responders and health-care workers are particularly at risk. The firefighters are taking on a huge burden on our behalf and Alberta teams have the highest rates of mental distress (measured by time-loss claims) in the country. Health-care teams suffered mental health symptoms throughout the pandemic, with no end in sight.
There are many proponents of land-back policy and Indigenous reconciliation who hope further stewardship of our lands might provide a way to mitigate these changes and they were the first to sound the alarm.
But it must first be recognized that Indigenous communities are facing disproportional effects of climate change and our mental health crisis. Access to remote communities, land and species decimation, inability to continue traditional practices like hunting or fishing — these are special considerations for First Nations people.
Government must collaborate with organizations like the Indigenous Climate Hub to seek acceptable solutions and close the gaps in health outcomes as recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. When we acknowledge the contribution of colonialism and capitalism paradigms in causing our climate emergency, it becomes clear we need “seven generation solutions.”
While we know individual actions are but a drop in the bucket compared to policy decisions and industrial contributions, they can bring a sense of agency over a situation where we feel helpless. Financial support of these individual and community behaviours, like solar power, microgrids, greywater recycling, heat pumps, insulation, urban gardens, and energy-efficient appliances can help mitigate this loss of control.
As health-care professionals, we ask you to #VoteForYourHealth and support candidates who understand how the mental health of our next generations depends on a healthy planet for them to thrive.
We ask the next government of Alberta to:
- Refocus environmental and health policies to include Indigenous leadership.
- Make culturally sensitive mental health with trauma-informed options easily accessible and available to all.
Dr. Christine Gibson (@tiktoktraumadoc) is a family physician in Calgary with a background in equity work, medical education and global health. A skilled facilitator and speaker, she engages in building individual and community resilience. Her writing creates the woven narrative between her interests — well-being, trauma recovery and the power of story. Her first book, The Modern Trauma Toolkit was just released.