The devastating effects of climate change were on full display throughout 2022: Hurricane Ian caused mass destruction across the southeastern United States, flooding in Pakistan during monsoon season affected 33 million people and killed at least 1,700, an extreme heatwave across Europe caused widespread droughts, and this past fall, post-tropical storm Fiona devastated the shores of Nova Scotia. Taking in the full scope of mass extinction, habitat loss, population displacement, food shortages and other disturbing consequences of rising temperatures can be downright dreadful. The scope of the crisis is huge and researchers are finding that it’s also taking a toll on our mental health.
Ashlee Cunsolo first started to consider the connections between climate change and mental health in 2007. At the time, she was a PhD student at the University of Guelph’s school of environmental design and rural development examining how global warming in Labrador was affecting the traditional way of life of the area’s Inuit. Part of her doctoral research revealed the community’s “utter grief and loss” as the rapidly changing environment began interfering with its long-standing hunting and fishing practices – researchers today might call this distress “climate anxiety,” “eco-anxiety”, or “eco-grief”.
Dr. Cunsolo is now dean of the school of Arctic and subarctic studies at Memorial University’s Labrador campus. A scoping review that she coauthored in 2022 of North American research on climate-mental health interactions suggests that the research community has a growing interest in the mental health risks associated with climate change (even as the paper identifies significant gaps in climate anxiety research). That same year, she contributed to the latest report of the United Nations’ intergovernmental panel on climate change, which for the first time includes a chapter on how global warming is affecting human mental health and well-being.
“People are very aware of the science and the predictions of what’s going to happen in the next five, 10, 20 years, and they are not seeing any action, so it’s creating a lot of anxiety, fear and sadness,” said Dr. Cunsolo.
Dr. Cunsolo also co-leads the Climate Change and Wellness in Canada Survey, which will query (in English, French and Inuktitut) at least 3,575 randomly selected participants about how climate change affects their mental health, with the goal of determining the nature, scope and commonality of this phenomenon. Similar work is underway at the University of Alberta, where the Climate Change and Global Health Research Group is leading multiple community-based, participatory epidemiological research projects to advance climate-health knowledge.
Kiffer Card of Simon Fraser University sees universities having a role to play in understanding the full dimension of eco-anxiety. The public-health epidemiology researcher is part of a team of interdisciplinary researchers, health-care providers and community organizers who comprise the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance. Last year, the group piloted the Climate Distress Monitoring System to examine the demographic and epidemiological distribution and determinants of ecological worry among British Columbians. Surveying residents both before and after the province’s record-setting heatwave, they found elevated levels of eco-anxiety that included concerns about impacts on their livelihood and region.
The impact on students
As researchers demonstrate that rates of climate anxiety are on the rise, some universities have begun to recognize that they must do more to understand this emerging mental health issue, to acknowledge its growing risk to students pursuing climate change research, and to provide support to those who are distressed.
“There’s a lot of gloom and doom in climate science, and students who are studying it day in and day out, they are struggling, and they’re dealing with it themselves. They don’t have any supportive resources, and faculty don’t necessarily know how to support them,” said Dr. Cunsolo. “It’s becoming a major discussion topic in postsecondary education as schools realize they need to deal with this global phenomenon.”
Helping students to navigate the upsetting aspects of climate science education is no small task for Canada’s universities, which already struggle to support students with anxiety and depression — conditions that have only worsened over the last few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some universities across the country are starting to address this new mental health challenge, but most of these efforts have been driven by sustainability offices and students themselves.
The University of Calgary’s sustainability office held an event on navigating climate distress in 2020. The following year, that office partnered with a team of students completing a capstone project in a fourth-year wellness course. The students developed a climate anxiety management toolkit that recommends direct climate action through clubs and community groups, and meditation, among other interventions. The toolkit is now being developed into an online resource by the sustainability office and the campus mental health strategy team. Meanwhile, Brock University master’s student Alexandra Cotrufo wrote a blog post for that institution’s sustainability office that offered the following advice for managing eco-anxiety: acknowledge your feelings, talk about your concerns, take breaks from climate action to recharge, maintain a healthy routine, focus on doing “good enough” work, and seek out professional counselling if needed.
Continuing the conversation
For her part, Allegra Netten noticed a dearth of psychological treatments and studies that address climate anxiety while she was completing her PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island. Driven by this research gap and her own growing distress about the state of the planet, she decided to develop a scale for determining public levels of climate change anxiety. The five-point Likert scale featured 35 statements such as, “My climate change anxiety causes me significant distress,” and, “I am afraid climate change will cause a catastrophe to occur.” As part of developing and validating the scale, Ms. Netten deployed it through an online survey and attracted 428 statistically viable responses, which revealed some agreement with the statements.
“From a research perspective, universities are key contributors to the literature, so I think it’s very important that we continue to build knowledge so that we can better understand how climate change affects mental health and disseminate that information to benefit communities and enhance treatment options,” said Ms. Netten, now a predoctoral resident at the Ottawa Institute of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, whose work includes counselling patients dealing with eco-anxiety.
Currently, Dr. Card at SFU is leading a study with other professors at the university, as well as at the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto and Athabasca University, that tracks real-time reactions to global warming by monitoring social media sentiment. Supported by $283,372 from the New Frontiers Research Fund of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the team is taking Dr. Card’s previous survey model a step further by creating an automated system to monitor relevant comments on Twitter and Reddit as well as information from Google News and Google Trends.
“We’re trying to understand how discourse about climate change evolves over time, and how news media reports affect the population’s level of anxiety,” Dr. Card said. “We’ll be able to capture different dimensions of climate distress and resilience. What your friends say about it, what you hear on TV, even what your party affiliation is — all of these things affect our outlook.”