The impacts of climate change aren't limited to changes in the environment. Researchers are beginning to learn how climate change may affect our mental health.
A 2009 report from the American Psychological Association predicts that the "effects of climate change are likely to be profound":
"Heat, extreme weather events, and increased competition for scarce environmental resources—compounded by preexisting inequalities and disproportionate impacts among groups and nations—will affect interpersonal and intergroup behavior and may result in increased stress and anxiety. Even in the absence of direct impacts, the perception and fear of climate change may threaten mental health."
A report from the National Wildlife Federation estimated that 200 million Americans will be subject to stress due to climate change.
As glaciers melt, communities in the northernmost part of the American continent are some of the first to be impacted by a warmer world. Understanding how they are affected could confirm earlier predictions and also give us a glimpse into what the rest of the world may experience.
Ashlee Cunsolo Willox of Cape Breton University is studying Inuit communities in northern Canada to better understand how climate change impacts mental health. The Tyee reports that the town of Rigolet has been particularly affected by warming winters and thinning ice, which makes driving a snowmobile difficult and even dangerous:
'Unable to hunt, fish, trap and forage, Rigolet's residents spent months indoors. They felt bored. Many became restless and depressed. "When I don't get out on the land," one resident explained to the researchers, "I'm like a caged in animal. I really can't relax properly." Cunsolo Willox's team had come to Rigolet to study how warmer weather affected the community's overall health. Researchers soon realized the biggest impacts were occurring inside people's heads. "I can't imagine how life would be if I couldn't travel in the winter," [resident Melva] Williams lamented.'
For some Inuit, the new problem exacerbates past traumas, in a community that has been marked by forced relocation and involuntary assimilation through compulsory boarding schools. Losing the ability to travel over the ice removes a vital coping mechanism.
An element of the negative emotions experienced in Rigolet seems to be linked to losing a connection to the land. Although many people living in urban environments don't have a deep connection with nature, Cunsolo Willox's research still has wide-reaching implications. Regardless of how much we may be unaware of nature in our cities, global warming threatens to upset our sense of place, our feelings of being at "home."
If losing a connection to nature can negatively impact mental health, the good news is that the inverse also seems to be true. Creating a deeper connection to nature can improve mental health, according to some studies. And perhaps a deeper connection to nature will remind us why fighting climate change is so vital.