As mental health problems increase in B.C. because of back-to-back climate disasters, some doctors are prescribing a walk in the woods or joining a climate action group to ease eco-anxiety.
But many people don’t know where to start.
UBC’s Cool ‘Hood Champs program wants to help out with that. Researchers developed a series of workshops, so people would not feel so overwhelmed about climate action, which can be as simple as planting a tree in your neighbourhood.
“The start of the pandemic was really hard on people but when I really noticed the spike in my own practice was when the wildfire smoke would come,” said Lem, who is an assistant professor in UBC’s faculty of medicine. “I think it was probably a combination of the smoke having a direct adverse impact on people’s brain functioning and mental health but also feeling like you weren’t safe anywhere.”
Solastalgia is a new term to explain environmentally induced distress.
As opposed to nostalgia — the homesickness experienced by individuals when away from home — solastalgia is the distress people feel about their changing environment while they are at home.
“So you feel homesick at home because of the negative changes in your environment,” said Lem.
Last year, for example, a study by Memorial University professor Ashlee Cunsolo looked at the Inuit in the Nunatsiavut region of Labrador and the “dramatically altered sense of place” they have because the temperature there is warming at twice the rate of the global average, resulting in loss of sea ice and other disruptions to wildlife.
Lem said the effects of B.C.’s climate disasters are cumulative and can be very distressing for anyone, but can particularly hurt patients who already have anxiety or other mental health issues.
“I think it is starting to hit home for a lot of people that maybe there isn’t a time when we can just step back and recharge. So the relentlessness of the climate disaster after disaster is taking a toll on people.”
Climate anxiety has been associated with numerous mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, grief, substance use disorders and thinking about suicide, according to a recent article in the B.C. Medical Journal
Take action to protect mental health
Here in B.C. this year we have been inundated with terrible news.
But there have also been positive stories, too — neighbours banding together to help each other rebuild or share supplies, charity groups mobilizing to get food to stranded truckers, an outpouring of donations to the Food Bank and GoFundMe campaigns to help displaced British Columbians. There was even a couple in Kamloops this summer who bought a fire truck to help put out a wildfire not just to protect their own house but their neighbours’ homes, too.
And then there are stories about young people taking to the streets to call for more climate action, such as the Fridays for Future movement started by climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Lem says it’s really important to balance the negative news with these positive stories. It’s also crucial, she added, to pair news about climate change with solutions.
Physicians prescribe a walk in the woods
Lem is also the director of park prescriptions for the B.C. Parks Foundation, which launched Canada’s first nature prescription program a year ago.
The aim was to connect people to nature for the health benefits but also for a wider awareness and action to protect the environment because research shows people who are more connected to nature are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours.
“It makes sense because you protect what you love. But people who get out into nature recycle more and save electricity and engage in more political advocacy, so it’s cool how engaging in nature can have a ripple effect beyond just your own health,” said Lem.
“It’s just like this deep exhale when you walk into a natural setting. It’s intuitive, but it’s also backed up with a lot of science.”
Empower kids with positive action
When children see adults taking action, they feel more hopeful themselves, said Lem. A recent study shows that for many children, the anger, fear and powerlessness they feel about climate change comes from a sense of betrayal that adults and politicians are failing to act.
“They are hearing you say climate emergency, but then don’t understand why people aren’t doing anything about it.”
A survey this month found that more than half of young people around the world are extremely worried about climate change. For the study, which is published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, researchers surveyed 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 in 10 countries — Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the U.K. and the U.S.
They found respondents across all countries were worried about climate change, with 59 per cent very or extremely worried and 84 per cent were at least moderately worried. More than 45 per cent of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change, including 75 per cent who think the future is frightening.
Lem said the best way to help children is to get them involved in cleanup programs or environmental clubs at school, or grow a mini garden and talk about why it is important to eat local food.
“I think it’s really important to validate kids’ feelings and then respond honestly about the issues but with a focus on the positive like say ‘yes it’s a big problem but as a family we are going to work on it.’”
Check out UBC’s Cool ‘Hood Champs
Cheryl Ng understands the concern a lot of people have about climate change.
She is the outreach and engagement coordinator at the faculty of forestry at UBC and lead researcher for Cool ‘Hood Champs, a Vancouver workshop that helps people take action to address climate change in their own neighbourhoods.
Participants can register for the three workshops that take place over a month at calp.forestry.ubc.ca
The first thing they ask participants when they join Cool ‘Hood Champs is why they are there and often they hear the same response.
“We hear people feel powerless or climate grief or climate stress either for themselves or for their kids if they are parents or grandparents. They are worried for the kids,” said Ng, who started the program about two years ago with Stephen Sheppard, a professor emeritus from UBC’s faculty of forestry.
“But they don’t really know where to begin to take action.”
Cool ‘Hood Champs is a training program that walks people through five key steps from starting the conversation about climate change all the way to coming up with a plan to implement at the neighbourhood or block scale, said Ng.
© UBC handout Participants in UBC’s Cool ‘Hood Champs program, which helps people engage in environmental stewardship at the neighbourhood level. Getting involved in local environmental action has been shown to reduce eco-anxiety.
© UBC handout Professor emeritus Stephen Sheppard and Cheryl Ng from the UBC faculty of forestry started Cool ‘Hood Champs to help ease eco-anxiety and get people involved in helping the environment at the neighbourhood level.
So far they have just been conducting the program in Vancouver. After a successful pilot last year, they ran it again this fall and will be running it again in the spring.
A lot of the projects revolve around gardening or planting trees. Last year, one group had free trees for participants to plant in their back yards to shade their homes. One group started an Instagram account to increase awareness about eco-friendly practices while others created a rooftop garden at a community centre.
“It’s wonderful and our aim to get people to feel confident and motivated to take action rather than just go into this endless spiral of grief,” said Ng.
To help choose a project, Cool ‘Hood Champs will give participants a climate action menu broken down into categories such as waste management, transportation, or gardening and green space.
Ng said she has heard from many participants that the program has helped with their eco-anxiety.