Grief

Climate Grief: Is It Real?

Solastalgia and mourning the loss of the environmnent.

Posted Dec 15, 2019

When we think of grief, we tend to think about the loss of a loved one. There are, however, many other losses that we grieve. In general, we grieve those things that impact us and alter our lives in some important way. It can be anything from the closing of a favorite restaurant to receiving a promotion and needing to move away from family, friends, and our comfortable routine. On the surface, some things may not seem to be a significant loss for some. But for others, there is an emotional loss. When we grieve something that others do not recognize as being worthy of grief, it is called "disenfranchised grief.    

Solastalgia is the term used to describe the emotional and existential distress caused by climate and ecological change and appears to be the biggest source of disenfranchised grief around the world.[1] Today, the number of people experiencing climate and ecological grief is increasing. However, because there are those in the community and in politics who do not see climate change as a real issue or threat, they dismiss those who do. They tend to believe that those who express such concern are overreacting or worrying about something that may never happen, even though it is happening now.

In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a position paper about the direct and indirect psychological impact of climate change on people. The APA lists the following as acute and chronic effects of climate change: “trauma and shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, compounded stress, strains on social relationships, depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, aggression and violence, loss of personally important places, loss of autonomy and control, loss of personal and occupational identity and feelings of helplessness, fear, and fatalism.”[2]

My own online survey asked the question, ”How do you feel climate change is affecting you emotionally?” The primary emotions expressed were anger, despair, frustration, and depression: 

“There is an existential dread when I think about it, and a sense of powerlessness with frustration as whatever positive impact average people make is very little compared to the damage caused by large corporations. It’s caused me to rethink the possibility of having biological children and I’ve considered adoption as a result. I can’t justify bringing in a new life with the way things are looking.”  

“I feel like the world is running out of time. I’m scared and worried we’ll all die really soon because of our own greed. I feel hopeless about the future. I feel like my very life is being taken away by greedy men in suits.”

“Not so much climate change but the deniers really ramp up my anger and anxiety especially when they actively try to thwart attempts to rectify the whole situation.”

“Climate change has affected how I view the world and its state. It has made me more willing to take action for the causes I believe in, and to take better care of the land that we all share. It also has caused me frustration that the people in power, like billionaires, are doing nothing about it, or contributing to it.”

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Many of us have experienced the devastating effects of climate change in our regions. Whether it is from snowstorms, fires, earthquakes, or hurricanes, these events can be catastrophic and forever change our lives. The collective grief is incalculable. Kessler[3] researched the emotional impact of Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area. They found that suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled. One out of every six people met the criteria for PTSD and 49% developed anxiety and depression. Having experienced Katrina both personally and professionally, I can attest to the devastating emotional impact that came with Katrina. Everyone involved had losses, some more devastating than others but the entire community grieved. Even though it has been 14 years, people are still impacted today. The losses can be incalculable.  While we in our regions may be experiencing a major weather event, we can think about moving to a safer area. But what happens when the world is experiencing devastation at the same time due to the changes in climate? How will we cope then?

It is easy to see why many people feel hopeless, helpless and depressed in the face of climate and ecological change. It can be overwhelming. What can one person do? We need to find a way to feel more in control of what happens to our immediate environment. That means doing whatever is necessary to be mindful of the impact our actions have.

One suggestion is to reach out to others in the community that feel as you do. Not only can a group provide support but it can present a louder voice to the community and politicians. Being a support for those working in the field of climate change is important and often overlooked. Conservationists and environmentalists are on the front lines and see and know things that we may not be privy to but cause them consternation and grief. 

Denial and passivity are the enemies of confronting climate change. Grief can immobilize us. But by taking action on an individual, community, and national level, we can channel our feelings into more productive and helpful ways.

References

1) Albrecht,G., Sartore, G.M., connor, L, Higginbotham, N, Freeman, S. Kelly,B., Stain, H., Tonna,A., Pollard,G. 2007. Solastalgia; The distress caused by environmental change. Australia Psychiatry, 2007;15 Suppl 1:S95-8 DOI: 10.1080/10398560701701288.

3) Kessler, R., Galea,S., Gruber,M., Sampson,N.,Ursano,R. And Wessely,S. (2008) Trends in mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina. Molecular Psychiatry, 13, 374-384.  doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.2010.01027.x