Climate and Mental Health Series in the Toronto Star

Earlier this week — Sunday and Monday — the Toronto Star ran several stories of mine that draw a direct link between climate change and mental health.

OuchterlonyThe first story, which to my pleasant surprise was run above the fold on A1 on Sunday, starts with Ontario coroner and former palliative care physician David Ouchterlony, who says his anxiety and despair over the growing climate threat has affected him more deeply — emotionally and psychologically — than the years he spent caring for dying patients or investigating causes of death. But Ouchterlony isn’t alone. The mental health impacts of climate change, particularly on those most vulnerable to it, is expected to grow and could become a serious public health crisis that we’re not prepared for and which, in Canada, is not even on the radar. This article provides an overview of the issue, how the American Psychological Association is taking it seriously, and how its Canadian counterpart and public healthy agencies in Canada aren’t really paying attention to this sleeper of an issue. Be sure to also read Ouchterlony’s own words in this thoughtful response to an e-mail I sent him last month asking: How is something like concern over climate change different from the kinds of feelings you have as a coroner, or had as a palliative care physician?

The same day the Star also ran a story focused on farmers, and how crazy and more extreme weather events linked to climate instability are making an already tough job more difficult. Farmers are a group with some of the highest rates of depression and suicide, and the fear is that climate change is going to make the situation worse for their mental health. Again, there’s not a lot of research in Canada looking at this issue, so these people are largely struggling silently.

Prof_Ashlee_Cunsolo_WilloxFinally, on Monday the Star ran my article focused on climate change and its psychological impacts on northern and remote aboriginal communities. The story leans heavily on the pioneering research of Cape Breton University professor Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, who has spent considerable time over the past few years visiting Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut, Labrador, and documenting how populations there are coping mentally with the changes around them and how it’s impacting their way of life. Canada’s north is being disproportionately affected by climate change and these indigenous communities are on the front lines. They need our attention and our help.

The package touches on other vulnerable groups, such as scientists/environmentalists, the poor and elderly, and those directly affected by extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and hurricanes. This last group I would categorize as sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The other groups are struggling with a more anticipatory, existential kind of anxiety about climate change that can fuel hopelessness, despair, guilt and depression. Some might group this as “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” which I think is a useful term. A person quoted in one of my stories called it “the slow drip of climate change.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 6.23.37 PMAs expected, some have commented that the series is alarmist and will only serve to feed anxieties. If telling the truth is alarmist, then so be it. Others will say I dwelled only on the problem and didn’t get deep enough into the discussion of how to bolster mental resilience. I should have focused more on positive developments, emerging new technologies, and adaptation as a way to short-circuit anxieties. I agree, that discussion is needed and that discussion will come. But first I had to identify that the mental health challenge is real — that it exists and has the potential to grow much worse as evidence of climate change becomes more apparent in our daily lives.

The first step to finding solutions is admitting we have a problem, and while only a small slice of the population suffers psychologically from what might flippantly be called the climate blues, I would argue that it’s a process we all have to go through if we are to become — emerge — more mentally resilient to the changes in our surrounding environment and how they affect our lives.

So let’s have the discussion. Let’s recognize the problem. Let’s devote resources to research. Let’s create a plan and the necessary support as part of municipal, provincial and federal adaptation measures. Both the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Psychological Association need to develop a position, remembering it’s both a public health concern and something that can affect the country’s economic productivity.

Finally, feel free to reach out if you have a story to share.