Climate change and mental health: an exploratory case study from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada

Abstract

As the impacts from anthropogenic climate change are increasing globally, people are experiencing dramatic shifts in weather, temperature, wildlife and vegetation patterns, and water and food quality and availability. These changes impact human health and well-being, and resultantly, climate change has been identified as the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century. Recently, research is beginning to indicate that changes in climate, and the subsequent disruption to the social, economic, and environmental determinants of health, may cause increased incidences and prevalence of mental health issues, emotional responses, and large-scale sociopsychological changes. Through a multi-year, community-led, exploratory case study conducted in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Labrador, Canada, this research qualitatively explores the impacts of climate change on mental health and well-being in an Inuit context. Drawing from 67 in-depth interviews conducted between January 2010 and October 2010 with community members and local and regional health professionals, participants reported that changes in weather, snow and ice stability and extent, and wildlife and vegetation patterns attributed to climate change were negatively impacting mental health and well-being due to disruptions in land-based activities and a loss of place-based solace and cultural identity. Participants reported that changes in climate and environment increased family stress, enhanced the possibility of increased drug and alcohol usage, amplified previous traumas and mental health stressors, and were implicated in increased potential for suicide ideation. While a preliminary case study, these exploratory findings indicate that climate change is becoming an additional mental health stressor for resource-dependent communities and provide a baseline for further research.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Since the research team of the Changing Climate, Changing Health, Changing Stories project was combined equally of Inuit and non-Inuit members, there was constant researcher presence in the community from 2009 until 2012. The non-Inuit members of the research team have been working in Rigolet from 2006 onwards, and have a combined total of almost 30 years working with Inuit populations. The non-Inuit researchers regularly travelled to Rigolet, ensuring visits to the community about every 2 to 4 months. During these visits, the non-Inuit researchers not only conducted interviews, but also integrated into and participated in community activities: hunting, fishing, berry-picking, cabin travel, community dinners, recreational activities, and on-going learning activities such as trapping, country food preparation, fur skinning and preparation, sewing, and Inuit culture and history. The non-Inuit researchers continue to be actively involved in community-based research in Rigolet and Nunatsiavut, and continue to participate in daily activities in the community and learn from their Inuit colleagues who are also continuing to lead and direct community-based research projects in the region.

  2. 2.

    It is important to note that these results are not stating that changes in climate cause addiction; rather, they are highlighting that some participants have directly linked an inability to go out on the land due to changing environmental and climatic conditions with an increase in drug and alcohol usage while in town and linked to having nothing to do, or a sense of loss of purpose, self-value, or identity.

  3. 3.

    Again, these results are not stating that climate change causes suicide; rather, they are highlighting the ways in which participants feel that changes in climate, and the resulting inability to get out on the land and the loss of solace, comfort, purpose, and self-worth, may lead to a potential increase in suicide ideation in the community.

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Acknowledgments

Our sincerest thanks to the community of Rigolet for supporting this research project. Special thanks to Michele Wood, Marilyn Baikie, and Inez Shiwak for their research leadership and guidance and for comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Thanks to the anonymous reviewers for providing insightful and constructive feedback that helped to strengthen this article. Funding for this research was provided through Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, the Nasivvik Centre for Inuit Health and Changing Environments, the Nunatsiavut Department of Health and Social, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s J-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship program, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Vanier Graduate Scholarship program.

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Correspondence to Ashlee Cunsolo Willox.

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Cunsolo Willox, A., Harper, S.L., Ford, J.D. et al. Climate change and mental health: an exploratory case study from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada. Climatic Change 121, 255–270 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-013-0875-4

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Keywords

  • Mental Health
  • Health Worker
  • Suicide Ideation
  • Mental Health Issue
  • Residential School