A Lament for the Land

This work was the basis of my PhD dissertation. Based heavily in emotional/psychological and health/medical geographies, and uniting social science and health methodology with environmental philosophy and ecological ethics, this interdisciplinary thesis examines the affective dimensions of climatic and environmental change, and the subsequent impacts on mental and emotional health and well-being within an Inuit context.

My dissertation work was situated at the intersection of emotional, health, and psychological geographies, public health, human-nature interactions, environmental philosophy, and the social determinants of health and well-being. Specifically, I consider the impacts of climate change on mental and emotional health and well-being within an Inuit context, and analyze mental and emotional adaptive and maladaptive responses.

Theoretically, my work situated climatic and environmental change as the work of mourning, and extends the boundaries and practices of mourning beyond human-human interactions to human-environment interactions, all within the context of environmental health.

Abstract

As climate change impacts are felt around the globe, people are increasingly exposed to changes and disturbances in weather, wildlife and vegetation patterns, water and food access and availability, and vectorborne and waterborne diseases in their local regions. As a result, climate change has been identified as the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. Indigenous peoples carry a disproportionate burden of these climate-related health impacts—impacts which are predicted to increase in severity and prevalence. For example, Canadian Inuit have been experiencing the most rapid climatic and environmental changes on the planet: increased seasonal temperatures; decreased snow and ice quality, stability, and extent; melting permafrost; decreased water levels in ponds and brooks; increased frequency and intensity of severe storms; later ice formation and earlier ice break-up; and alterations to wildlife migration and plant growth patterns. These changes are decreasing the ability of Inuit to hunt, trap, forage, or travel on the land, which directly disrupts the socio-cultural fabric of the communities and individual livelihoods.

These changes area also causing strong emotional responses: place-based fear, anxiety, despair, distress, hopelessness, depression, and grief—and as a result, also impact mental and emotional health and well-being. This research draws from 85 in-depth interviews and 112 questionnaires conducted through a case study in Nunatsiavut, Labrador, Canada between October 2009 and October 2010, and identified that Inuit are experiencing climate-related mental and emotional health impacts through seven interrelated pathways: increased reports of family stress; increased reports of drug and alcohol usage; increased reports of suicide ideation and attempts; the amplification of other traumas, or mental health stressors; decreased place-based mental solace; and land-based mourning and grief due to a changing environment.

This work represents the first research to examine the mental and emotional health impacts of climate change within a Canadian Inuit context, and one of the first such studies globally. These findings indicate the urgent need for more research on climate-related mental health impacts and emotio-mental adaptive processes in Canada and internationally, and for more mental health programming to enhance resilience to and assist with the mental health impacts of climate change.

Here’s a video ‘teaser’ of my work created for the FrostBytes of the International Polar Year (IPY) 2012 conference in Montreal, Canada.