Climate Change Affects Mental Health of Inuit

Lack of snow and ice changes their way of life

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Ashlee Cunsolo Willox

When we were hit with an unexpected heat wave this past March, most of us were celebrating the pleasures of being able to walk outside without a jacket and enjoy the sunshine. But for the 300 or so residents of Rigolet, Canada’s most southerly Inuit community, that warmer weather and longer-term changes in climate may be contributing to mental health difficulties.

That’s according to Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, a recent PhD graduate, who has been studying the connections between climate change and mental health problems among the Inuit who live in Rigolet and other isolated communities in Labrador.

Through a multi-year community-based project led by the Rigolet Inuit Community Government, she worked with PhD student Sherilee Harper, adjunct professor Victoria Edge, Population Medicine, and a team of Inuit researchers, using digital media to explore the issues of climate change and health. Cunsolo Willox’s particular area of focus was the relationship between climate change and mental and emotional health.

“Climate change is a major concern in the region,” says Cunsolo Willox. “Records indicate that temperatures have been six to 11 degrees warmer in recent winters than in the past.” Because this community relies so closely on the natural environment for livelihoods and sustenance, even small changes can have huge repercussions.

Charlotte Wolfrey, the AngajukKâk (mayor) of the town, says those recent warmer winters are only part of what seems to be a longer-term trend. “Over a number of years, we’re seeing less ice and less snow. Winter starts later and ends earlier.” That might not seem like a bad thing to some, but for this Inuit community, it’s a big problem. The town of Rigolet is not accessible by road. People can fly in all year round or take a ferry in the summer, but the residents have long relied on snowmobiles and dogsleds to get out during the winter to hunt, trap, ice fish and visit family and friends in neighbouring communities. Without the snow and ice, they are stuck in town.

“There have always been areas of unsafe ice, but we knew what areas would be safe and when. That was traditional knowledge that was handed down from generation to generation,” says Wolfrey. “Now you can’t trust all that knowledge. The section of ice that used to be safe to cross in November isn’t safe in November now.”

The inability to carry out their traditional hunting and fishing pursuits and travel to family cabins affects the residents economically, but also emotionally. “We’re really people who want to be out on the land,” says Wolfrey. “It’s part of us and the way we grow up. We get away from the hustle and bustle of being in town, and we connect with nature and beauty and we feel at peace. Being on the land gives us a connection with where we’ve come from and who we are.”

To study the effects of climate change on health and wellbeing, Cunsolo Willox and her colleagues set up the My Word: Storytelling and Digital Media Lab and invited the Rigolet residents to share their stories about changes in the land, weather, animals and plants. They also talked with focus groups, administered two surveys and conducted more than 80 in-depth interviews with community members. The information was often quite surprising and emotionally-charged, particularly around the mental health issues.

Many of the people in Rigolet, Cunsolo Willox says, “talked about the land almost as a member of their families. The changes they are seeing feel like they are happening to their kin, to a relative, to a loved one.” Others described how being out in nature helped them to recharge and refresh; when they weren’t able to go out, they felt like they were missing an important part of their health and wellbeing.

As a result, Cunsolo Willox heard many descriptions of concerns such as increased family stress, lack of patience, reports of increased drug and alcohol use, and greater mental health tensions. Participants and mental health counsellors who worked with people in the community also reported that more people were identifying that climate change was an additional and very serious mental health stressor, and combined with many other complex factors, was leading to more talk about suicide among some participants. “It is important to emphasize that we’re not saying that climate change causes suicide,” cautions Cunsolo Willox. “But people in our study did link climate change as another self-reported causal factor.”

Others who were interviewed said that the effects of climate change amplified previous traumas. “Those who had been forced to relocate or been taken to live in residential schools told us that going out on the land and following traditional ways was a strategy that helped them cope with the traumas they’d experienced,” says Cunsolo Willox. “Now that the environment was changing so dramatically, and their previous coping strategies were no longer available, all the old pain flooded back even more strongly.” In addition, watching the land change around the community also led to deep feelings of pain and disorientation as familiar landscapes changed.

That was the information that surprised Cunsolo Willox the most. “There is a huge increase in the need for mental health supports for the Inuit affected by climate change, and the few counsellors working in these communities are overworked and becoming burned out. More resources and support are urgently needed.” While this is an exploratory study, it is the first of its kind conducted within an Inuit context and one of the first such studies globally. As a result, it provides a baseline study for understanding the potential mental health impacts of climate change in Canada and abroad.

Wolfrey appreciates Cunsolo Willox’s efforts to understand the issues, saying: “We taught her about our culture and what it means to us to be out on the land. We’ve been her sounding-board. Now we are hoping to get some strategies for adaptation.”

“The hope lies in how adaptable and strong the Inuit people are,” adds Cunsolo Willox. “But these issues need more attention and resources.”

Digital stories: Ashlee Cunsolo Willox shares digital stories created as part of Changing Climate, Changing Health, Changing Stories, a community-driven storytelling project led by the Rigolet Inuit Community Government:

Have we waited too long?

My Dad taught me well