Impacts of the climate emergency on Indigenous mental health

What you need to know

Indigenous Peoples are among those experiencing the diverse mental health impacts of climate change first and foremost. Evidence shows that strong emotional responses, suicide, depression and anxiety are linked to repeated and drastic changes in weather events. The emotional and psychological impacts of climate are caused by:

The mental health impacts, intangible losses and damages due to climate change will create new mental health challenges and worsen existing mental health issues. The evidence summarized in this Research Snapshot highlights the need to better prepare for the mental health implications of rapid climatic change. It is vital to engage Indigenous Peoples on global research efforts. More support must also be provided to Indigenous-driven initiatives and decision-making to enhance mental wellness in a changing climate.

What is this research about?

Climate change magnifies existing mental health challenges. It leads to new and complex climate-sensitive mental health stressors and outcomes, such as ecological grief and anxiety, distress caused by environmental changes and the loss of beloved places.

Certain populations are more immediately impacted by changes in climate, including:

This Research Snapshot highlights a scoping review of research looking at the many pathways through which climate and weather impact Indigenous Peoples’ mental well-being.

What did the researchers do?

Researchers identified articles from the peer-reviewed literature, published after 2007, that explored Indigenous Peoples’ mental health in relation to climatic variables.

The researchers examined:

Indigenous research partners, community members, government representatives and graduate students were engaged throughout to collaborate and guide the conceptualization, analyses and interpretation of findings.

What did the researchers find?

Fifty articles were included in the final review. These articles mainly described research in Canada, Australia, and the United States of America, with the number of articles increasing over time.

Six themes arose from the review:

1. A variety of climate-sensitive mental health outcomes was studied.

Evidence showed that severe and short-term weather systems such as storms, flooding, temperature and seasonality were linked with a range of psychological and mental health impacts. These included:

Changes in temperature and precipitation were the most commonly investigated in relation to suicide and mental illnesses. Chronic exposure to multiple weather events such as wind, storms, sea ice formation, and subsequent land access, were also linked to emotional responses and feelings of loss, worry, anger, sadness, and distress.

Evidence further showed that climate-sensitive drivers of mental health (e.g., food and water insecurity) could manifest as mental illness, suicidality, harmful coping strategies and an increased use of health services. Indirect experiences of climatic stressors also produced emotional distress, either vicariously or in anticipation of climatic projections that threaten individual and community futures. For example, Indigenous participants feared or empathized for people (particularly people within their social networks) experiencing intense weather or environmental conditions.

2. Climate change disrupted place-attachment and mental health. Many articles identified the strong, deep and ancestral connections Indigenous Peoples have to their land. Access to and time spent on the land was important for food, resources and livelihoods. It was linked to protecting and enhancing Indigenous mental well-being and fulfilling psychological needs (e.g., a strong sense of identity and self-worth, interpersonal relationships, and cultural practices).

Climatic and environmental changes were strongly linked to an altered sense of place, resulting in negative consequences for livelihoods, cultural practices and social networks.

Changing environmental conditions that disrupted connection to place further led to negative mental health outcomes, including:

3. Indigenous mental health-climate experiences varied by age and gender. Differences in coping methods and access to social networks were seen across gender and age groups. This suggested that intersectional approaches to mental health programming and support were important in addition to individual-level resources and those that more broadly addressed community well-being.

For example, in a subarctic Inuit community, the odds of reporting feeling angry, scared and frustrated by changes in the environment were significantly higher for women compared to men. Although no articles focused on only investigating males, some articles suggested that anxiety, suicide and substance abuse were more of a challenge among them. Male mental health was impacted when seasonal and climate-dependent employment (e.g., farming and hunting) was at risk, affecting their land-based identity.

Focusing on youth experiences of climate is also important, as these experiences are often formative for mental health and well-being later in life. Elders and older community members were another vulnerable group identified for mental health impacts related to changing climates because their identities, livelihoods and well-being were often deeply rooted in time spent on the land. Notably, Inuit youth participants expressed particular concern for Elders and seniors in their community, acknowledging that the drastic changes they perceived in environment and culture must be felt even more so among older generations.

4. Food security was a common link between climate and mental health. Climatic changes were reported as affecting Indigenous Peoples’ access to adequate quantity and quality of food, leading to poor mental health outcomes. The ability to provide food for one’s family was reported as a source of positive identity. Harvesting and sharing food was tied with fulfilling psychological needs at both individual and community levels. It also contributed to stronger social networks. Grief and mourning for climate-related loss of livestock and wildlife was also documented.

5. Climate-induced human mobility was a mental health concern. Climatic change and environmental impacts, such as sea level rise and chronic drought, may alter landscapes to the point that they are no longer able to support Indigenous cultures and livelihoods. Evidence showed that after extreme weather events, unplanned relocation, forced migration and displacement were linked to higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse along with the loss of critical social support systems.

Importantly, relocation and migration is often forced upon communities when the loss and damages are so severe that staying is no longer an option. These strategies may resurface past traumas for Indigenous Peoples related to forced relocation and displacement.

6. Climate change worsened emotions tied to historical and ongoing disempowerment. Helplessness, lack of control and anger were commonly reported as participants discussed the impacts of a changing climate on Indigenous autonomy and self-determination. In some cases, their limited ability to reduce global climate change was linked to feelings of abandonment by governments and the broader global community, and it resurfaced previous traumas. Evidence also showed that poor planning and policy can have more severe psychological consequences than the changing climate itself.

How can you use this research?

Unstable and extreme climatic conditions will likely increase the need for forced relocation. As a result, it is important to plan for and support the complex mental health needs of Indigenous migrants who may experience disruptions to health-sustaining cultural, social, familial and environmental networks.

The application of diverse methodological approaches will be necessary to document these intangible losses and damages, determine the potential limits of adaptation and propose desirable alternative pathways. To improve adaptation efforts, there must be increased Indigenous engagement in climate change policy and relevant programming.

Further research is required to examine how these climate-induced emotional and mental stressors may increase already-present health concerns and interact with concurrent health concerns and pre-existing mental illness. It highlights the need for more population-level and longitudinal studies as well as active monitoring of mental health among affected Indigenous Peoples.

About the researchers

Jacqueline Middleton1, Ashlee Cunsolo2, Andria Jones-Bitton1, Carlee J. Wright3,

Sherilee L. Harper1,3

1. Department of Population Medicine, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

2. Labrador Institute of Memorial University, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL, Canada

3. School of Public Health, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada

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