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

·5 min read
The ways in which climate change is affecting more aspects of lives, from forest fires like this one in Ontario in 2021, is also taking a toll on our mental health, researchers say.  (Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry/Provided - image credit)
The ways in which climate change is affecting more aspects of lives, from forest fires like this one in Ontario in 2021, is also taking a toll on our mental health, researchers say. (Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry/Provided - image credit)

When Kiffer Card and his colleagues noticed a gap in research about how climate change has affected Canadians' mental health, they decided they wanted to close it.

In January, Card and a team of researchers at the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance released a study that found the 2021 British Columbia heat dome sparked a 13 per cent increase in anxiety related to climate change among those living in that province.

And that research is part of a growing movement to understand the connection between climate change and mental health — and how new phenomena like climate anxiety might be mitigated.

"Hopefully we can spur both investments in public and mental health and encourage politicians to recognize that this is having an effect on people's daily lives," said Card, an assistant professor of health sciences.

Now, he is part of a yearlong project at Simon Fraser University to see whether social media can be used to monitor the ebbs and flows of climate anxiety — all by analyzing how frequently keywords connected to the condition are used.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
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 that online digital world," Card said of what's believed to be one of the first projects to try to quantify climate anxiety on a Canada-wide level.

The goal of the study is to create a monitoring system that could be used by health-care providers, crisis centres or climate activists, which would notify them of spikes in climate anxiety as seen on social media.

If therapists see a bump in climate anxiety following a natural disaster, and they have a patient they know struggles with that symptom, they might choose to check in on them, Card said.

"You could send a text or reach out to make sure they're doing OK," he said.

He notes the project isn't perfect — and that certain communities that might be more vulnerable to climate change might not be reflected on social media.

The challenges in getting data

A challenge to collecting accurate data on climate anxiety lies in figuring out how to describe it — not all communities use words like "eco grief or climate anxiety," said Nicole Redvers, member of the Deninu K'ue First Nation.

"At the Indigenous community level it is sometimes framed as grief and loss," said Redvers, also an assistant professor in Indigenous Health at the University of North Dakota.

"There is ongoing loss as opposed to something impending in the future for someone who has never experienced land loss or the historical and contemporary trauma that comes with it."

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

Redvers said that communities in the Northwest Territories will often not have access or ownership to mental health data collected by the federal or territorial governments.

"They don't even get feedback on what are some of the main issues that are affecting their community," said Redvers.

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

Mia Sheldon/CBC
Mia Sheldon/CBC

It's one of the reasons the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon, is developing a census based on a happiness and wellness index.

It's believed to be the first First Nation to do so.

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

Climate anxiety, and how it is understood in the Western context, is a tool to "bring non-Indigenous people into the Indigenous experience," Tizya-Tramm said.

"Through your understanding of climate anxiety, I can take you back to the beginning of the 20th century when our people were warning miners about damaging the permafrost," he said.

"Our people literally told them, 'When you drill holes in the ground, it's going to crack and then warm air is going to come in and the earth will melt and slump."

Youth and climate anxiety

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

UNICEF's annual report card, released in May, ranked Canada as being 28 out of 39 developed countries when it comes to 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 of how we're not doing enough to fight climate change. That is a perfect illustration of why climate change is causing our youth so much anxiety," said Anna Gunz, pediatric ICU doctor at London Health Sciences Centre, where she focuses on how the climate crisis affects children.

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

"It will really be about what they find helpful or not," Gunz said.

The path forward

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

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

And how we communicate about climate change can be one of the most effective ways at reducing anxiety connected to it, said Katie Hayes, lead author of the study.

"If we're not pairing climate change communications about the risks with the actions we can take, that can increase a lot of anxiety for people," 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 lots of research that can still be done in this field — not only continuing to identify the problem areas of climate anxiety but also what we can do about it."