In this 15 August 2018 photo, Verne Tom photographs a wildfire burning along a logging road approximately 20 kilometres southwest of Fort St. James. 2018 was the worst year on record for wildfires in B.C. Photo: Darryl Dyck / Canadian Press

By Duncan McCue
21 October 2018

(CBC Radio) – Monika Willner had only five minutes to pack her family's pets and precious items, before fleeing the wildfire that raged in their backyard.

The fire still haunts her two months later.

"I suffer from bad dreams and nightmares, waking up at night, screaming, seeing the fire," she said.

Though her family escaped safely, and their rental home was untouched by flame, the fire that swept through their uninsured property near Burns Lake, B.C., on 9 August 2018 exacted a heavy price.

They lost a $25,000 car her son was restoring, beekeeping equipment, and her husband's carpentry tools. But that wasn't the worst of it.

"Honestly, the physical loss wasn't as bad as the effects on your mental health," Willner said.

"I still can't go back there," she said about the house where her husband still lives. "I moved out of the place."

As Canadians cope with more catastrophic weather events, and the long-term effects of climate change gradually intensify, mental health experts say more Canadians will be afflicted by a psychological phenomenon known as "ecological grief."

"It's the grief that's felt in relation to either experienced or anticipated ecological loss, whether it's due to acute environmental issues or long, chronic, creeping changes," said Ashlee Cunsolo, director of the Labrador Institute at Memorial University.

"We [need to] consider climate policy within the framework of ecological grief, and within the framework of mental health and all of these other losses that are often hidden and hard to account for."

Understanding eco-grief

Cunsolo became acutely aware of ecological grief in 2008 while she was part of a team that interviewed 100 people in Ringolet, N.L., during a study of the effects of global warming in the Arctic.

Instead of a singular event like flood or drought, the Inuit have faced the realities of climate change slowly over time.

Researcher Ashlee Cunsolo studied the psychological effects of climate change in Labrador. Photo: Jean-François Bisson / CBC

As they explained how melting sea ice had hurt their ability to hunt, Cunsolo says everyone interviewed spoke of the impact the changing climate was having on their mental health, with increased anxiety, sadness, anger, grief and loss.

"One of the elders said, 'We are people of the sea ice and if there's no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?'" Cunsolo recalled.

"That's such a profound existential question, and it's a question resonating around the world as things shift."

The emotional and psychic toll of ecological grief (also termed "solastagia" by philosopher Glenn Albrecht) is an expanding field of inquiry among both climate scientists and mental health professionals. [more]

Growing 'ecological grief' is the mental health cost of climate change

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