DR. GORDON: Good afternoon and welcome, everyone, to the National Institute of Mental Health Director’s Innovation Speaker Series. I am Joshua Gordon, Director of the NIMH, and it is really my pleasure to have you here today for what is going to be a really provocative talk by Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo of the Labrador Campus of Memorial University. I am going to introduce Dr. Cunsolo in just a moment, but before I do that let me just go over the usual housekeeping notes. They will be familiar to those of you who have been to one of these before.
During the webinar you have access all the time to the Q&A box. That is where you should go if you need some technical assistance. Just use that Q&A box, enter a question about what your needs are and the event production staff will try to help you out.
At any time during the webinar you can also use that Q&A box to type in a question to the presenter. Ashlee and I are going to engage in a conversation at the end of the talk and your questions will be answered to the best of our abilities to reach them all. But you don’t have to wait until the end to raise those questions as soon as they occur to you just throw them into the Q&A box and that will help me make sure to get the conversation off to a running start when the talk is over.
Of course, this webinar is being recorded. The video recording will be made available in the coming weeks on our website, nimh.nih.gov, and the full link is now in the chat box and you should be able to access it. If you like what you hear today or you don’t like it and you want everyone to know, by all means please share that link with your friends and colleagues if they were unable to attend today.
We are really excited to have visiting us today via the internet Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo who is the Dean of the School of Arctic and Subarctic Studies at the Labrador Campus of Memorial University. Dr. Cunsolo is really a leader in trying to understand the health and, in particular, the mental health effects of climate change.
An interesting history that brought Dr. Cunsolo to this area stars with a PhD at the University of Guelph, and I am going to butcher the exact topic of that PhD, but it has something to do with the intersection of society and ecology and geography. I will let her define exactly what that was. She went on to do a postdoc at McGill University and then took a faculty position at Cape Breton before moving in 2016 to the Labrador campus.
The reason for that move is really evident if you look at her work, her knowledge, her science. She has been studying the impacts of climate change on the first nation populations in Labrador for quite a long time, and although she didn’t start out with a focus on mental health, it became clear to her through the course of her studies that that is a major issue, if not the major issue, faced by the societies in the Arctic, and she is really a leader in this field.
I will just say, as many of you may know, as the NIH in general and NIMH in particular try to turn our attention to understanding and mitigating the impacts of climate change on health in general and on mental health in particular, we really look forward to interacting with Dr. Cunsolo and other scientists in the field to try to understand the gaps and how we can help fill those gaps.
With no further ado I am going to turn it over to Ashlee — by all means, take it away.
DR. CUNSOLO: Thanks so much, Dr. Gordon, and thanks to you and your amazing team with Aimee and Stacey and Nick and Dawn and Debra for all the work you have put into making this happen and for the really kind invitation for me to join today. It’s a real privilege and a real honor to connect with your group. Just looking at the participants on the list, I know there’s a lot of people working in this area and doing really incredible work at the intersection of the climate crisis and what it means for mental health, so thank you to all of those who are joining and for those of you who are doing this work. It is always wonderful to connect and chat with colleagues.
As Dr. Gordon said, I am Ashlee Cunsolo. I have been working on the topics of climate change and mental health, particularly in the Arctic and Subarctic regions and particularly in Labrador, since 2008. The majority of research has been with the Inuit in Labrador in the northernmost part, and so I’m going to start by talking about that history and how I came to work with people on this topic and how it has really grown and evolved.
I am going to start with some very local and personal stories, but while I’m talking it will be progressing to what it means nationally and internationally. I want you to think about, too. What is your ecological grief, what are the pieces that you are connected to, and what are the places that mean something to you and how are you being affected as these places change and as you’re seeing the effects not only on yourselves but on others, whether that’s your family or friends or people internationally and around the world who are at the front lines of a changing climate.
This is where it all began for me. This is the community of Rigolet in Nunatsiavut. You can see it’s on the northeast end of Canada and it is in Labrador. We are part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, but this is a separate Inuit land claims settlement region that is self-governed by the Inuit here. There are five communities in this region and they range in size from about 200 to 1200.
There are no roads going in and out of any of these communities, so they are remote and they are fly-in year-round provided that the weather is okay. You can access by a seasonable ferry during the summer months. For the winter months, which are everyone’s favorite, it’s traveling by sea ice. You can see here how the community is right on the water, and when this freezes over it’s like one big highway and one big road.
In 2008 I was invited by the community to join a team of Inuit and non-Inuit researchers who were working with the community to try to understand the broader impacts of climate change on health. At that time, Rigolet was doing a lot of work on the relationship between climate change and physical health because Labrador has been at the front lines of a changing climate for decades. We know the Arctic is warming at a much faster rate than the rest of the world. The Canadian Arctic, for example, is warming at a rate three times faster than other parts of the country and Labrador is warming at a rate four times faster, so it is actually the fastest warming place in Canada and one of the fastest warming in the world.
This means that for decades people have been at the front lines and have been experiencing this. When we hear the talks around global rates of 1.5 degrees and we don’t want to surpass that as the global average temperature change, in Labrador we have already passed a three to four-degree on average temperature change. So, quite significant, and this has a lot of impacts which I will talk about.
So, this is really where it all began. The research was initially conducted over a two-year period with Inuit researchers and myself talking to people of all ages. We talked to almost 90 people. The youngest was eight years old and the oldest was over 80, and it was conversations around what are the impacts that you’re seeing, but also, what do the impacts mean to you, and then importantly, how do you feel.
The “how do you feel” question really came about because of a conversation with an elder, Sara Bakey, who was part of the team. We were sitting in her living room looking out at this water and it hadn’t frozen and it was March, and there was serious concern in the community at the time that people were not able to travel. And so we were talking about the changes and I said how do you feel about this, and she looked out to the water for a long time and then she started to cry and she said, nobody has ever asked us how we feel.
There was so much research at that time working with the Inuit and asking people about what are the changes they’re seeing, but no one had ever asked how do you feel, and she had never told anyone about the grief and the sadness and the stress, and the stress that she was feeling particularly related to climate change.
That led to large community conversations individually and then in groups about how people were actually feeling. What was really incredible was no matter the age or the background or gender or time spent on land, 100 percent of people identified the mental and emotional impacts of the changing climate as often their number one concern, but generally a very, very major concern, and always multiple reasons and multiple connections.
So that is where it all began. This was back in 2009 we really started looking at this and started working with communities and then started making connections more broadly with other groups doing similar work.
What people were talking about, and I think what’s really important to understand in this context, is there’s a particular experience that is happening in places like Nunatsiavut and Labrador and the Arctic where these are slow and cumulative chronic changes. There is not one big break event, but there’s something that is happening day-in and day-out that’s causing people ongoing stress and anxiety and a whole myriad of emotional responses, and it’s because of people’s connection to land and identity and culture.
When we were talking to people, everyone was really emphasizing that the important piece to understand is that the land is everything. It is how people connect, it’s how they understand the world, it’s how they feel who they are, it’s an existential and identity piece. And I love this quote about “my government is my land” and the idea that everything is connected and how people make decisions and how they exist in the world is from the land.
People really emphasize the connections, and this quote about “We feel a part of the land. It’s me. It’s us. It’s my people.” People talk about the land as kin, as a part of themselves, that if you couldn’t go out on the land it was like a piece of you is missing. People talked a lot about feeling, when you went out, that you were free, you were calm, you could connect with who you truly are as a person.
When we think about climate change and mental health and we think particularly about places that are deeply connected and places that are going through rapid change but in a chronic, ongoing way, we need to think about these connections that aren’t often seen or considered, particularly when we’re looking at climate change adaptation policies and mitigation policies.
People talked about how the land was absolutely foundational for all aspects of mental health and wellness. This quote really summed up what a lot of people were talking about, that if you don’t go out on the land you don’t feel like people. And so, for a lot of individuals, accessing the land, whether it’s on boat as you see in this picture, whether it’s by sea ice, whether it’s walking, is key to connecting and it’s a key mental health support and mental health adaptation coping strategy. So, if there are disruptions to the ability to access the land due to changing climate, then people are losing a really key piece of what it means to be well and a really key coping mechanism.
It is also really important to note that in a lot of these communities, we know — and all of you on this call are dealing with this — mental health is drastically underfunded, but certainly, in remote areas like northern Canada and Labrador, it is extremely difficult to access any form of mental health support, and often for really extreme situations people are flow thousands of miles away from home and culture to access care, and continuity of care is extremely limited. So the access to culture and the connection to land is extremely important.
People talked about extensive, extensive changes. As I mentioned, an already three to four-degree temperature change on average has happened in the region, and depending on which climate projections you look at, Labrador is still slated for anywhere from a six to 11-degree temperature change, which is extraordinary when you think about the region that we are in. Some of the projections are showing that by 2100, Nain, which is the northernmost community in Nunatsiavut that is very high up, will have the same temperature regime as we have currently in St. John’s on the island of Newfoundland that is almost 3,000 kilometers south. So that is a shocking potential future outcome for this region.
The big things are obviously changes to sea ice, and you can see this quote here by an elder in Nain that “Inuit are people of the sea ice. If there’s no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?” That is such a profound existential question around what happens in these regions. The Labrador ice regime has already declined by 75 percent.
The ice that normally would come in at the end of October, early November and then break up in May is now just forming in January and often gone by the end of April. So there are months of lost ice which means there are months of lost time that people can hunt and gather food, where they can travel on the land safely, where they can go to other communities, they can get supplies and can go out to feel well and connect to cultural practices. This is a very devastating change, and it also has some significant impacts on mental health and mental wellness.
Temperatures obviously are shifting and that brings changes in precipitation levels. I left Labrador yesterday to fly to St. John’s and it was zero degrees and raining, and that is unprecedented. We have had virtually no snow this year and extremely warm temperatures. Ice has formed, it formed very late, early January, but now with the rain it’s breaking up again so people are very stressed and very upset as we speak. This is a very current discussion. We also have a lot more wind that is changing the behavior of ice, and we also have big changes to plants and animals which are having a big effect obviously on people.
When we talked to people about how all of these changes — because there are so many changes, they are so rapid and they have such interrelated and very cumulative impacts. When people were talking to us about all of this that’s happening, there was just this huge range of emotional reactions. Anger, frustration, fear, sadness, stress, distress, helplessness, hopelessness, just a whole myriad of ways people were describing what it was like to live within a changing climate and what it was like to try to continue to be Inuit and pass Inuit cultures and traditions on. And this idea that if you can’t get out on the land safely and you can’t do those things and you can’t access the ice, then it’s like you are not fulfilled.
A lot of people talked about this idea that people in the South often think that Inuit would be happy if it was warming up, that they would want warmer temperatures, and everyone would say no, we live for the cold; we can’t wait for winter. And there’s a really amazing book, if you haven’t read it yet, by Sheila Watt-Coultier, who’s an amazing Inuit activist and scholar from Canada in Nunavik, and she wrote a book called The Right to be Cold where she lists it as a human rights piece for Inuits, that this is a culture thousands of years old that has relied on the snow and ice for all aspects of culture and wellbeing.
In addition to the emotional outcomes, people talked a lot about really complex psychological outcomes, and we also did a lot of work with Inui counselors in the region who were working to provide mental health supports and who were really at the front lines of providing patient care at a time when people were really starting to link significant mental health changes due to the changes in weather and environment.
What a lot of the mental health professionals were talking about and what we heard from people was really increases in depressive episodes or depression, increases in anxiety, sleep disruptions, disruptions to work and family life, a lot more family conflicts and interactions with already-present mental health challenges. People talked a lot about the inter-generational trauma that was existing in communities and the ongoing negative and harmful effects of colonization, enforced relocation and residential schools, and everything that people have been through and what they carry. And so those psychological outcomes are present and then climate change has mapped on top of them both as a direct stressor directly to people causing that stress, but also as an indirect stressor by affecting all the other aspects of things that make people mentally and emotionally well.
Counselors also talked about concerns about increases in addiction and suicide ideation and suicide, and being really concerned that over time we would see increases in these rates. And part of the connection during the shoulder seasons, which is when ice forms and ice breaks up, and normally those are only a couple weeks and people are sort of, as they call it, stuck in the communities not able to access the land, but now what we’re seeing are shoulder seasons that can last six weeks or longer. And so a real concern that during this, quote, “empty time” when people aren’t able to be out on the land and do things that are productive and healthy, they may choose different types of behavior that might cause harm to themselves or to family and friends.
So there are a lot of concerns around what this will mean moving forward, and certainly when we’re looking now at some of the global research that’s coming out that is linking these on a population level, there’s concern and areas of focus here.
When we’re talking about Labrador it’s a very regionalized, localized piece, but it is certainly something that resonates when we look at the global climate change and mental health literature and some of the key drivers there. When we look at what is impacting mental health from climate change there are different avenues, and what is often most discussed are the acute ones. Those are, obviously, the hurricanes, the floods, the wildfires, the really significant events where there are mental health supports and structures and emergency response already in place so that when a significant disaster happens there are mechanisms and structures and people that know what to do. They can respond. And there is a lot of literature and a lot of professional practice around what happens in the moments and then in the days and months and years after a significant disaster.
But what we know in many ways less of and what we don’t really know what to do with is the slow and cumulative piece that we’re seeing not only in northern Canada but in other places like low-lying states, and there’s really excellent research in Australia, for example, where we’re seeing the slow and cumulative and day-to-day changes where there is no significant break event but it’s certainly impacting people and disrupting their lives and their wellbeing.
Another really key pathway that people are focusing on, and we’re seeing this a lot particularly in younger populations, is the idea of anticipatory grief or loss or understanding of what’s coming, knowing the science and knowing what’s out there and having responses to that, and having that fear of the future and the fear of what’s to come.
And then the vicarious pieces where we see others suffering, we see people going through horrific life-changing and ecological-changing experiences. And there’s that human empathy and capacity for care and for feeling and for understanding that even if you are not at the front lines many, many other people are, and that eventually most people will be deeply affected by changes to climate and environment.
And then the disruptions to place attachment and social determinants of health, the other things that keep us healthy and well and those changes in the environment and how that affects all aspects of our lives. Glenn Albrecht, the philosopher from Australia who does a lot of work in this area, coined the term solastalgia, which is basically a homesickness while you are still at home, and this is something that came up in our research in Labrador, and in fact, and we connected people with Glenn to talk about this because when they learned about the concept they said yes, that’s exactly what it is. And a lot of elders talked about that very strongly, that they have been through so much in their lives, including forced relocation, but now they are in a home place that they know so well, and they haven’t moved but everything around them has changed so much that it’s disorienting and they feel homesick for the home environment that is no longer there.
When we look at all these outcomes, the emotional reactions, the anxiety and distress, the psychological pieces, the potential for addiction and increased family stress, suicide ideation, cultural identity and erosion and of course ecological grief and anxiety, these are kind of the major areas that people are focusing on, that there is increasing research on which is really great because we still know relatively little about this area. And of course, incredible professional practice as people are trying to support many, many people who are going through these climate-driven mental health responses.
The piece that I want to move into is this idea of ecological grief. Really, a lot of this work came from people first in Rigolet and then in all the communities of Nunatsiavut talking about all the myriad pieces we’ve talked about, how climate changes impact them, but really focusing on and coming back to grief and really talking about what does it mean to grieve beyond the human and what does it mean to grieve for an environment and a climate and hold that planetary grief in a way that can be understood and can be seen and can be healing and not debilitating, but also understanding that we don’t have a lot of these rituals generally to recognize and that many people don’t know how to express it and don’t know how to discus it.
So the three pieces I’m going to talk about here came from a paper I did with my colleague, Dr. Neville Ellis, from Australia. Neville’s team in Australia and our team in Labrador ended up connecting because of the shared work, and his work was looking at people in severe drought-prone areas in Australia.
So you have Australia and Labrador which are very far apart, very different cultures, very different climates, very different everything, and what the teams found was you can take the data from conversations and interviews and you could replace sea ice with drought farmland and vice versa and people couldn’t tell where the quotes were coming from. There was such an experience of sharing in those moments of people realizing how much this grief is transcending boundaries of culture and geography.
There are really three areas that we were seeing at this time. Obviously, the first is the physical loss and the ecological loss, and that is something that I think people are most able to see immediately and to understand. Then there is also the grief that people talked about, whether they were Inuit in northern Labrador who were hunters or whether they were farmers in Australia, talking about the grief when environmental knowledge is disrupted and the loss of identity that comes with it. And really what it means to have these knowledge structures and, in the case of Inuit and other indigenous peoples, thousands of years of knowledge structures and connections, connected to identity and connected to place, shifting as climate shifts.
And then a lot of people, particularly the younger people, talked about grief associated with future losses, and with knowing what is to come and being really worried and really full of despair and sadness and grief about — especially in Labrador when we have seen what has changed to date and then people know the science; they know what’s coming and they imagine, if this is how much we have been affected now, what is it going to be like in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. And what does it mean for our children and grandchildren; and how will the culture continue on?
Another huge area of focus — and I’m sure many of you are working in this area and connecting — is obviously the global focus right now on young people and what does this mean within a changing climate. The kind of emerging study right now that people are talking about a lot was Caroline Hickman’s with her large team from around the world looking at 10,000 young people from multiple countries.
You can see here just some stats I pulled from her article. This is something that people are really experiencing, and I think when you look at the numbers here and that people are worried, there are strong emotions, the future is frightening, that this is something that more and more and more young people are discussing and talking about. I know from the professional mental health providers that I work with, they’re talking about almost being overrun now with young people coming in wanting to talk about climate fear and climate grief and anxiety, and not know what to do and how to support those young people through these complex emotions.
Before I wrap up, this is some of the current research that I and my team and particularly Dr. Sherry Leigh Harper at the University of Alberta have been working closely on a number of these pieces. We do a lot of work at community and regional levels, and for me particularly, I am very much a qualitative and community-led researcher, but we are also working now looking at what’s happening in Canada and building off the work of actually Dr. Kelton Minor who is on the call and others who are looking at these national household surveys.
We have a randomized household survey on the go across the country right now that should wrap up in the next four months trying to look at what is the prevalence and distribution of mental health-related impacts from a changing climate, and how much can we measure and understand from the data and what is out there.
I have a student who is doing this really amazing global media review on climate change and mental health of these major news sources to track when has this really exploded in the media — because we know it has — and whose voices are really represented and where are the key areas of concern, with some interesting trends.
I have another amazing student looking at climate cafes around Canada and the UK and looking at their impacts for youth and potential connection to youth resilience.
We’re working with a climate modeler for projections trying to figure out how we can link work that we have done on clinic mental health visits related to seasonality and are now doing some forward-focused projections like, if we follow particular climate change tracts, what can we expect to see in terms of certain mental health outcomes.
And then, of course, continued work in ecological grief and sorrow and loss and really trying to learn from the incredible work that’s happening all over the world on this topic now and connecting with people and artists and students and researchers. There’s a lot of really sad climate scientists and researchers trying to work through what are the particular mechanics of grief and loss and mourning that can move us through.
One of the things that I really focus on, because when we talk to people they will so often say I have all of this grief and I’m so ashamed, or, I don’t want to tell anyone, or I didn’t know I wasn’t the only one, is really trying to emphasize that this grief and anxiety that people feel is a reasonable, rational response to threats that we are experiencing to the planet and our health and wellbeing. And trying to explore the particular mechanisms that grief has that can unite, that can bring people together in action and community if we have the supports to make sure that grief isn’t debilitating and isolating, but that it actually does have the ability to bring us together.
And this idea that people like Joanna Macey have been talking about, but certainly the people that I work with, that the only way through is to really embrace the sorrow. And this is something that a lot of particularly the elders that I work with have talked about over and over again, that we have to be able to open ourselves up to the pain of the world and the grief of the world to be able to act, and we need to not back away from it and not shy away from it but really understand that so much of what we’re doing will have a profound impact on people’s mental and emotional wellbeing and carry a lot of grief.
But we are not having those discussions at the policy level or at the mitigation and adaptation tables; we are still making things about economics and infrastructure and a little bit about people, but we forget about these huge areas.
The other thing that communities talk about here in Labrador and elsewhere is just the sheer mental health cost of adaptation and adaptation fatigue. We see a lot of emphasis on, well, people will adapt in the North; they will have to adapt. And certainly, Inuit are incredibly resilient and have been adapting to environments for thousands of years, but never to something as rapid and as widespread as this. While people will adapt, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come at a huge cost, and it doesn’t mean that incredibly important and painful things won’t be lost.
So we need to start thinking about the broader pieces around not only the mental health impacts but the mental health costs when we ask people to adapt. And when we praise them for adapting, there are many things below the surface.
This is something I and several colleagues, including Kelton Minor on the call, put together, this idea of whether ecological grief and anxiety is a healthy response to climate change and something that we can actually look at from research, from policy, from practice and a mechanism for change. What we put here is that we need to be able to explore the difficult reactions, but we also need the political will and the supports and we need the research required to strengthen and support these approaches. So we really need all hands on deck from all perspectives to understand this further and to really ensure that we are incorporating it into policy discussions, into adaptation strategy discussions, into professional practice, into schools, everywhere, so that we start to understand really what this is going to mean, and the cumulative and profound impacts that many people are already experiencing and that likely many more will experience moving forward.
Thank you so much. I will stop sharing here.
DR. GORDON: Thank you very much, Ashlee, for a really wonderful talk highlighting a number of issues, a number of impacts, and hinting at the notion that there might be things that we can do to try to mitigate these impacts. I am going to make our way there but a little bit slowly. I want to first just recognize how poignant that one line you cited from one of the elders is. “If Inuit people are people of the sea ice, who are we when that sea ice disappears?”
To a certain extent, the Inuit people are the proverbial canary in a coal mine in terms of being the first to dramatically see the impacts of climate change, so that is an important aspect of the important contribution that studies of the Inuit and with the Inuit can help the rest of us understand the impacts. But also that line points to the fact that, more so than many other cultures in the United States, Inuits are really tied to the climate and tied to the geography in a way that poses particular problems.
I wonder if you might speak to that concept, that what you’re studying here is at once generalizable and we can anticipate some of these impacts which also, at the same time, are uniquely, or if not uniquely at least more strongly, felt amongst the Inuit people than we might expect in other places. I wonder if you might talk about that for a moment.
DR. CUNSOLO: Thanks for pulling out that quote. That has always remained one of the most powerful things and something that when other people in the communities heard it they were like, yes, that’s exactly it. It came from a documentary that we made with all five communities where Inuit wanted to tell the world their experiences and what they were going through, and it’s called “Lament for the Land.” It’s available online for free, and it is basically a love story to the land in Labrador but also showing how that grief and the pain comes in.
It was community-edited and put together, and it was a wise decision to put that quote right at the end of the film because it really sums up that this is not just a geographical change, it’s not an infrastructure change, it’s not an economic thing, it’s not an inconvenience, but it is really fundamentally altering a whole culture’s way of being in the world and who they are and what it means. And there is something really deeply profound about that, and for what other people are going through around the world who have these similar connections to land and have a whole knowledge system, a whole language, a whole way of seeing the world that is totally different because of those thousands of years of connection to place and to understanding land.
The Inuit and the whole Arctic have been sounding the alarm for decades and decades, trying to raise attention to say we are seeing things changing, and for decades they were ignored. And then people started to listen but it was more in an extractive way like, okay, what are the impacts, and then not really doing anything. And now it is very widely known that there are incredible impacts, but there is still not the global shift.
And so people talk about that a lot, about the helplessness of feeling that they’re experiencing external effects, and many people talk about it as a continued form of colonization and a continued form of colonial violence where it is structures from outside imposing things that are deeply impacting a way of life, and a way of life that has so much profound wisdom and knowledge about how you deal with changing environments and changing climates.
I think the canary in the coal mine thing is something that people often bring up. One of the elders — I was in a meeting with the federal government, and someone said that, and she said, well, canaries were expendable and we are not, so why are we the global canaries in the coal mine? Are we expendable? Is that what you’re telling us?
I think that is what we have to think about, the decisions that countries and structures and industries are making and some of our individual choices. What we’re really saying is that some people and some beings and some animals and some places are expendable, and I think that we really need to change the conversation.
But what I think is really important is it’s not just people who are connected to the land that are having this. There are deep and profound ways that people are being affected, but we also know that people all over the world, even if they don’t have indigenous backgrounds or they’re not hunters or farmers or fishers, people are still being impacted differently, but it is still really important. And that’s why we need more of these population-level studies and more understanding of what is actually happening. What is the prevalence, what is the distribution, what are the age groups, what are we seeing, so that we have more data and more teeth to make important decisions and to start to leverage for different types of change.
DR. GORDON: That is a great point, and it highlights the fact that you are getting those data now with the surveys that you’re putting out that will lend more quantitative teeth to the qualitative work that you’ve done, not only qualitative, a lot of which you laid out.
Before I ask another question, I will just point out that there are already a few questions in the Q&A. Please keep entering them along the way; I am going to get to some of them right now.
This question from one of the attendees really pertains to one of the points that you raised, that there is anxiety and grief in the here and now about what one is experiencing, and there’s anxiety and grief that is anticipatory, so not just, oh, I have two months less sea ice this season, but also 10 years from now am I going to have any sea ice at all? Am I going to lose that connection to the land in that way?
I think for many of us either who have children or see children clinically, we see a lot of that anticipatory anxiety associated with climate change even in cultures like our own here in the Washington, DC area, which are not as directly connected to the land as the Inuit culture. This question is in that spirit. Beyond grief, do you see any signals in your research that underscores shifts in people’s orientation toward living in the now versus planning for the future?
My colleague is asking because the colleague speaks with some young people who want to enjoy their lives as much as possible in the present because they worry that climate change will compromise their futures. You can comment whether that’s a healthy or adaptive or maladaptive approach to concerns about the future, but is that coming out in your work with the Inuit? Do you see shifts towards more living in the now or is the anxiety about their future so debilitating that they –.
DR. CUNSOLO: That is such a powerful — Well, I think this is one of the key issues that we need to grapple with right now, is what shift and impact is this having on young people, and I think especially now being several years into the global pandemic and what that has done to young people. And now people are so aware of the climate future and what it means.
In Labrador you don’t necessarily see it framed like this among young people. What young people are doing is trying to reclaim and learn as much as possible about Inuit culture and about being on the land before they feel they won’t be able to, so their response is not in the way of like a hedonistic living for the moment; it’s we have to preserve what we can when we can and how we can.
And a lot of young people are doing really incredible things like recording elders and getting skills on videos and learning things and having all of these on the land and in community events. So it’s not a franticness in a bad way but a really concerted effort like we need to do this, like we have to save it before there is an ice-free future, which is one of the projections for Labrador, actually, that by 2100 it could be ice-free. So, people are working that way.
I think other research — and certainly if you do a lot of media reading of what’s happening, this idea of either living for the now, or you see a lot of young people saying I won’t have children, there’s no point. I’m not going to bring people into the world. Or a lot of like, what’s the point of. And so you can see that in the global media zeitgeist.
We have four teenage boys and their friends come over and everyone will talk about what’s the point; climate change is going to wreck everything anyway. And it’s so casual, and it takes me by surprise every time because of the casualness and saying it as though it is already true, that there is no hope.
That research from Caroline Hickman’s group had a huge section around this helplessness and the idea of government not doing enough and feeling hopeless because of that. So I think it’s a key thing we have to learn more about and figure out how to work with people so that it’s not living for the now in a really negative way, but it’s also figuring how do you cope with this idea if you think there is no future.
My 13-year-old will say, I don’t even know what it’s going to be like when I’m 30; what’s the point? How devastating is that at 13 when your whole life is ahead of you? And he’s not alone, we know this. So, what do we do? How do we support millions of young people who need our support and who are also, frankly, angry at our generation, and rightly so. They are mad and frustrated and we have let them down in many ways.
DR GORDON: That sense of lack of control, that is the subject of another question and I’m going to get there by way of just reflecting on what you just said about the Inuit young people who are trying to, if you will, capture the culture so that even if it doesn’t exist in an active sense it is preserved for the future. It seems to me that work like that is an attempt to exert some sort of control, if not over the climate, then at least over their future and the future of the culture that they value.
From your research, can you get a sense of how much a lack of sense of control contributes to adverse mental health consequences? It’s this anxiety and depression — does that depend upon that lack of sense of control or is it correlated with that lack of control?
DR. CUNSOLO: Wanting to preserve people — I identify that as a grief work, like work that is driven by grief and love, love of Inuit culture. Because that’s the other side of grief, right, is love. And so people are responding in sadness and sorrow but they are doing it out of love and they’re doing it out of respect for their family and their kin.
It wasn’t just young people that talked about the sense of helplessness and lack of control; it was actually all age groups. And people talked about it differently. Young people would often talk about the global structures that make them feel helpless and out of control. For the older people, the seniors and elders, the living memory of horrific residential schools and forced relocation and people taken out of their community — this climate change is interacting with that, so people would sort of link those together and say it’s just — we have no control over what people are imposing on us yet again. Like, I never thought there would be another form of violence like this, and here it is.
But at the same time, the exertion of self-determination is so essential to how people are responding. The Inuit in Labrador are doing incredible research on this topic, incredible programming, are recognized internationally as doing some of the top community-led adaptation work, cultural work, research. It is really amazing, and people see that as a form of self-determination and a form of adaptation.
But I know a lot of younger Inuit who say their research is like a love story back to their community, like to give this back and to show their love.
There are, though, some really emerging pieces looking specifically at the negative impacts of helplessness and lack of control and how people can get that back. It’s not an area that outside of Labrador I have worked in directly or see that correlation. I’m sure there are studies out there that are starting to look at these correlations. But I do think it is such a key piece that we have to figure out.
I hear more and more adults talking about it, too, like almost resigned now, and I find this especially among a lot of my colleagues. A lot of scientists and a lot of people working in this area in climate change in general, their resignation and the sadness is very profound, and people are leaving the area because they can’t carry that burden anymore. I think it’s everywhere, but I can’t give you a specific research study on it. But I would love to know if there is because I think it’s a key piece.
DR. GORDON: I’m just noting there are a couple of comments in the Q&A box echoing that notion of grief and sense of loss, particularly mentioned by a child psychiatrist trained in Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island talking about that palpable sense of grief there.
Also a couple of questions, I think appropriate, about how we might support people and in particular young people who have the grief, and what we have learned so far about healing practices and support practices that can help young people.
I noticed of course in the talk you mentioned these climate cafes. I don’t know if that is one of the possible ways, but I’d just love to hear your thoughts so far, and I know your research hasn’t really gone there yet, but what kind of research you envision or you’re planning in terms of mitigating the emotional, mental health, anxiety, grief aspects of climate change besides things you have already mentioned.
DR. CUNSOLO: Certainly the key areas that I have been working on in Labrador working with communities is to develop those in community cultural practices as a climate change mental health adaptation strategy and coping strategy. People having the ability to create crafts, to learn to make things, to hear the stories, to cook together, to bring young people together within a cultural context has been a major coping strategy.
The challenge is, as I mentioned, there is very little formal mental health provision in the region, so there are young people who need more than participating in these events and that’s something where people then — there has to be more mental health structures.
The climate café is one. A graduate student who is working on that actually went into it and has been studying this because of her own climate grief and anxiety and she has been a longstanding youth activist in this area and then has moved into wanting to find mental health supports to support young people. So she found climate cafés helpful but wanted to learn more about them and wanted to learn about the different structures, so looking at that.
But I also think those pieces that we know — and I can see some of them coming up in the chat — around the role of parents, and parents often don’t know how to talk about this or have their own grief. More mental health supports that are talking about this specifically, more educational pieces. In the university setting, students are constantly asking for content about ecological grief and the mental health impacts and having spaces to talk about it, but then also asking the universities for support, like we need more resources to support us as we’re struggling with this as university students.
I think there are so many different pieces. And from the mental health perspective, there are incredible mental health professionals out there who are trying all different approaches based on what we know are already successful therapeutic responses, but also new ones specifically based so much around the eco psychology and the nature-based therapies and all of that incredible work. People are just trying what they can based on best practices and knowledge and understanding but also based on what people are asking for.
I don’t know how we are going to support or keep up with the number of people, and this is something I tried to talk to our own government about. You know, you’re doing all these economic projections, which is great, but you are now looking at the physical health costs of this, and so they’re doing some interesting, you know, what’s going to happen with physical health, hospital rates and costs. But what about the profound mental health impacts and the many more people that are likely to experience than a physical health impact, or both together? And they’re like, well, we don’t know how to put numbers on it, so they probably just won’t get at it.
We have to look at this, but how do we account for it is the huge thing, and then how do we find the strategies to support young people but also people of all ages.
DR. GORDON: I know one of the reasons for you wanting to do the more comprehensive quantitative survey that you are embarked on now is to get those numbers so you can provide hard data to the policymakers about what kind of supports are needed.
This next question gets a little bit more personal. How do you manage your own grief and anxiety for yourself while trying to do really important science on this complicated topic?
DR. CUNSOLO: I don’t know if I manage it well. I will be honest, because we are in a group where people work in this area. I actually think that the research I do and by writing about it and by talking about it I simultaneously think is something that I do to improve my mental health. But I also think there is a part of it that is probably a maladaptive coping strategy because if you talk about it and you intellectualize it and it’s out there, you don’t actually have to deeply, deeply feel it.
I think that many of us who think for a living, we can theorize and feel like we’re feeling it and I can talk about the grief, but that’s not the same as actually grieving.
This really came to the forefront during my PhD when I was immersed in the pain, just explicit, raw pain for years of deep human trauma, people talking about this. I was constantly listening to interviews. I would go for a walk and I’d have my headset — it was just everything. And I developed a really unexplained nerve issue in my neck and shoulders where I could no longer use my hands to type. I had all these tests and nobody could figure it out, and one of the elders was like, yeah, because you’re not grieving, you’re not letting it out. I said what are you talking about. I talk about grief all the time. He’s like, but you are not grieving. What is wrong with white people? You just talk about your feelings but you’re not actually feeling your feelings.
So I did a lot of work with this individual to actually let out a significant amount of grief and allowed myself to grieve, and as soon as that was done everything went away and I was able to finish the dissertation.
But I think this is something — I am just as guilty of it, where if you feel it all the time it is so much, and so I believe so much in this work and that we need so much, but I also think that the work is both healthy and non-healthy at the same time.
So, there is my very honest answer.
DR. GORDON: Who knew that Freud had a disciple amongst the Inuit?
Well, thank you so much for coming today, for sharing your work with us, for giving us so much to think about. Obviously, a lot more work to be done and we look forward to working with you and other scientists in this area.
I am going to close with a question that gets to a little bit more hope. The beautiful photographs that you showed as part of your talk, one of the questions says, “The images in your talk helped to tell a beautiful and compelling story connecting the people to the land. Can you tell us more about the photographer?”
DR. CUNSOLO: Thank you and Rachel. The photographer, his name is Eldred Allen. He is from Rigolet, born and raised. He is Inuit. He is a GIS specialist, and he was doing a lot of community mapping and then obviously climate change became huge for him. So what he did was to become a drone operator and he does really high-end drone mapping for the whole region and does some incredible scientific work to track and monitor climate change, but also uses his drone for ice safety and takes regular pictures to show people where the holes are and what’s dangerous, and also to do climate change scientific tracking.
His pictures, which are absolutely stunning, are also his way of telling others and sharing with others the beauty of the land but also showing how the land can change through seasons and how important it is that we know of those fluctuations but that we also see the change. His company is called Bird’s Eye, Inc. if anyone is interested in learning more.
DR. GORDON: Thank you again for bringing those images to us, for bringing the ideas to us that you spoke about, and for challenging us to think about the mental health impacts of climate change both among the Inuit and really throughout the rest of the world.
I want to thank everyone for putting in questions. I’m so sorry we are unable to get to even half of them; there were just a lot of questions in the queue, and we tried to pick out the ones we could get to. We look forward to seeing many of you at the next Director’s Innovation Series. Thanks again, Dr. Cunsolo.
DR. CUNSOLO: Thank you so much and thank you to everyone for being here and for all the wonderful questions and discussion. And, Dr. Gordon, thank you so much to you and your team for this opportunity.
DR. GORDON: Goodbye for now.