Sat, Aug 17, 2019 - Page 9 News List

How the climate emergency could lead to a mental health crisis

By Anouchka Grose  /  The Guardian

The Greenlandic Perspective Survey tells us that 90 percent of Greenlanders accept that climate change is happening. More than that, it is making them anxious and depressed.

Given that they live in cultural and climactic conditions that put them at the frontline of ecological change, we might be well advised to take their thoughts and feelings seriously. Where they go, we may very well follow.

At opposite ends of the climate spectrum — from the parched landscape of New South Wales to Greenland’s melting sea ice — people are finding the need for new words to describe the mental health issues linked to environmental change.

In 2003, the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” to describe the anguish caused by environmental alterations due to droughts and destructive mining.

Taking the Latin word for comfort (slcium) and the Greek root designating pain (algia) he gives us a neologism that sums up the devastating effects of finding unease where you used to look for relief.

If the world around you once promised to be a place that provided a certain amount of food, shelter and consistency, how might you feel as it gradually becomes a place of extreme unpredictability and risk?

In Greenland, the north Baffin Inuit have the word uggianaqtuq to describe the unpleasant feeling caused by a friend behaving strangely, or even a sense of homesickness experienced when one is actually at home.

More recently, this word has been coopted to describe volatile weather conditions and the sense of one’s surroundings becoming unreliable — storms brew more suddenly and last for longer, the ice is thinner and food is noticeably more scarce.

Where you used to be able to sustain yourself by hunting, fishing and foraging, now you may have to supplement this with trips to the newly established supermarket.

How are you supposed to pay for the food? What if you can no longer afford to feed your dog?

Alongside these more specialized-sounding terms we also have the more self-explanatory “ecological grief” and even the idea of a kind of post-traumatic stress linked to the state of the planet.


This last idea might sound strange — how can it be post-traumatic when the worst is yet to come? Can you be traumatized by something that is still happening or even, according to some, might not happen at all?

In the 19th century, the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot linked the apparently nonorganic symptoms of hysteria (a diagnosis he also believed could be applied to men) to the speed of modern life.

He believed that previously unprecedented accidents related to industrial machinery and mechanized travel could have traumatizing effects.

After experiencing, or even nearly experiencing, a technologically related shock you might find yourself unable to process it mentally — it all happened too fast, too hard, too unnaturally to be thinkable.

Human minds were simply not equipped to deal with the changes that were taking place in the world around them.

Whatever you make of Charcot’s outdated, politically problematic medical categories, his idea of unthinkable transformation surely resonates.

For all but the most stalwart climate change deniers, something is definitely under way.

However, how exactly it will manifest itself, and how it will feel, is impossible to predict.

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