Psychosocial adaptation to climate change in High River, Alberta: implications for policy and practice

Abstract

Objectives

Psychosocial adaptation to climate change-related events remains understudied. We sought to assess how the psychosocial consequences of a major event were addressed via public health responses (e.g., programs, policies, and practices) that aimed to enhance, protect, and promote mental health.

Methods

We report on a study of health and social service responses to the long-term mental health impacts of the 2013 Southern Alberta flood, in High River, Alberta. Qualitative research methods included (i) telephone interviews (n = 14) with key informant health and social services leaders, (ii) four focus group sessions with front-line health and social services workers (n = 14), and (iii) semi-structured interviews with a sample of community members (n = 18) who experienced the flood. We conducted a descriptive thematic analysis, with a focus on participants’ perceptions and experiences.

Results

Findings of this study suggest (1) the long-term psychosocial impacts of extreme weather and climate change require sustained recovery interventions rooted in local knowledge and interdisciplinary action; (2) there are unintended consequences related to psychosocial interventions that can incite complex emotions and impact psychosocial recovery; and (3) perceptions of mental health care, among people exposed to climate-related trauma, can guide climate change and mental health response and recovery interventions.

Conclusion

Based on this initial exploration, policy and practice opportunities for public health to enhance psychosocial adaptation to our changing climate are highlighted.

Résumé

Objectifs

L’adaptation psychosociale aux événements liés au changement climatique est encore sous-étudiée. Nous avons cherché à évaluer comment les conséquences psychosociales d’un événement majeur ont été abordées par des mesures de santé publique (p. ex. programmes, politiques, pratiques) visant à améliorer, à protéger et à promouvoir la santé mentale.

Méthode

Nous faisons le compte rendu d’une étude des mesures sociosanitaires appliquées pour remédier aux effets à long terme sur la santé mentale de l’inondation survenue en 2013 à High River, dans le Sud de l’Alberta. Nos méthodes de recherche qualitative ont compris : i) des entrevues téléphoniques (n = 14) avec des informateurs aux échelons supérieurs de la santé et des services sociaux; ii) quatre groupes thématiques avec des intervenants sociosanitaires de première ligne (n = 14); et iii) des entrevues semi-dirigées avec un échantillon de résidents (n = 18) touchés par l’inondation. Nous avons mené une analyse thématique descriptive axée sur les perceptions et l’expérience des participants.

Résultats

Selon les constatations de l’étude : 1) les impacts psychosociaux à long terme des conditions météorologiques exceptionnelles et du changement climatique nécessitent des interventions de rétablissement soutenues, ancrées dans les connaissances locales et dans l’action interdisciplinaire; 2) les interventions psychosociales peuvent avoir des effets pervers qui provoquent des émotions complexes et nuisent au rétablissement psychosocial; et 3) la perception des soins de santé mentale, chez les personnes exposées aux traumatismes d’origine climatique, peut guider la réaction au changement climatique et aux problèmes de santé mentale et les interventions de rétablissement.

Conclusion

Nous mettons en avant, à la lumière de cette première exploration, des possibilités d’améliorer l’adaptation psychosociale au changement climatique au moyen de politiques et de pratiques de santé publique.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Psychosocial health encompasses states of mental well-being as well as mental ill-health and distress.

  2. 2.

    It is important to reflect here that marginalization of people occurs in an uneven world where discrimination based on race, gender, age, culture, and socio-economic status permeates the entire social fabric of society (Rudolph et al. 2018). Thus, at the core of the climate change and health problem area are issues of distributive justice, and more specifically climate injustice. Our aim was to explore how issues of distributive justice related to climate change and mental health were occurring in the local context of High River.

  3. 3.

    It is important to note here that there is no succinct definition of recovery, and that recovery can, in many cases, take a lifetime. For the purpose of this research, we understood recovery interventions to mean sustained responses that could support long-term needs.

  4. 4.

    A sense of community can be described as social cohesion, trust, and reciprocity that people experience in group settings.

  5. 5.

    Intersectoral (in this case) refers to multiple sectors (inside and outside of the health sector) that act together to support or enhance psychosocial adaptation in a changing climate.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the people of High River, interview participants, and focus group participants. Authors would also like to thank anonymous reviewers for their review. Acknowledgement of Material from Published Report: the authors would like to acknowledge that this submission includes material from Katie Hayes’ doctoral thesis—see Hayes, K. (2019). Responding to a Changing Climate: An Investigation of the Psychosocial Consequences of Climate Change and Community-based Mental Health Responses in High River. TSpace. University of Toronto. https://www.etdadmin.com/cgi-bin/student/mylist?siteId=623&submissionId=695377. Accessed 15 November 2019.

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Correspondence to Katie Hayes.

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This research was approved by the University of Toronto Ethics Board, the University of Alberta Ethics Board, and Alberta Health Services ethics.

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Hayes, K., Poland, B., Cole, D.C. et al. Psychosocial adaptation to climate change in High River, Alberta: implications for policy and practice. Can J Public Health (2020). https://doi.org/10.17269/s41997-020-00380-9

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Mental health
  • Psychosocial adaptation
  • Qualitative research

Mots-clés

  • Changement climatique
  • santé mentale
  • adaptation psychosociale
  • recherche qualitative