Far too frequently, it can be overwhelming to hear of the infinite issues we and our environment face. Sadly, as humans, we have played a significant role in the downfall of our only livable planet.
Dealing with the emotional stress that comes from knowing that if we do nothing, large portions of the Earth we are currently used to inhabiting may no longer be habitable for humans.
These facts induce anxiety and sadness in many. It is so common that there is a name for it: solastalgia. But what can be done about it? It seems like, as our environmental issues worsen, this environmentally induced distress will only increase.
What Is Solastalgia?
Solastalgia is “the distress caused by environmental change” (1). It is defined as a somaterratic illness that threatens one’s wellbeing and is primarily caused by ecosystem degradation due to pollution (1).
More specifically, solastalgia comes from the inability to find solace in one’s home ecosystems, species, or landscapes (2).
This, of course, will become increasingly prevalent in a climate-changed society, where the environment of one’s home will be forever changed.
Solastalgia is also commonly linked to feelings of nostalgia because as their environments change, they feel nostalgic for what used to be. They miss the functionality of their environment that is now lacking.
History Of Solastalgia
While similar sentiments have been expressed long throughout history, Glenn Albrecht first coined the term in 2003 at the Ecohealth Conference in Montreal, Canada.
It has since been used to describe various mental afflictions surrounding the environment.
Who Is Impacted By Solastalgia?
While the term was first applied to communities in Eastern Australia experiencing extreme drought, it now applies to far more communities in countless areas of the world.
It is now well accepted that solastalgia is affecting marginalized communities at the highest rates, as they are the most disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change (3).
Climate change will only exacerbate preexisting environmental and social justice issues, as those who have already been wronged will be impacted far worse than more privileged groups.
About half of Americans report being worried about climate change, although many see it as a distant issue (6).
However, that is still hundreds of millions of people who report some feeling of distress. Namely, a massive amount of people already being affected by solastalgia.
Throughout 2012 and 2013, roughly one-third of Americans reported being directly impacted by climate change (6).
Because children are still developing, they are at an increased risk for anxiety during and following a natural disaster or extreme weather event.
In the three months following hurricane Andrew, 38% of children aged 8-12 experienced symptoms consistent with PTSD (6). Children have also been shown to possess symptoms of PTSD for longer than adults following an extreme weather event (6).
Chronic stress from natural disasters is also more likely to affect the child’s development, potentially leading to chronic mental health issues in the future.
Children also rely on their caregivers, as they are still young. This means that if their caregiver’s mental health is not adequately taken care of, that will impact the child’s mental wellbeing.
Women tend to feel post-disaster stress symptoms much stronger than men (6). After a disaster, women tend to have higher rates of PTSD and other anxiety disorders.
Pregnant women, in particular, are at an increased risk for PTSD and depression after a disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina.
Climate change will also likely negatively affect food and water availability, which are especially important when a woman is pregnant, putting her at greater risk for disaster (6).
The elderly population in the United States is increasing. This means that the number of people with untreated depression and physical disabilities is also increasing, leaving a more vulnerable population (6).
Poor air quality has also been linked to cognitive decline in the elderly, as poor health quality will increase as climate change worsens.
People in a lower socioeconomic standing will have fewer resources than they have at their disposal to adapt to their changing environments, making them more susceptible to feel the effects of climate change more strongly (6).
They also tend to have jobs that are more directly tied to the wellbeing of the environment surrounding them, meaning that as that environment is degraded, their source of income will consequently be degraded as well.
First responders, by nature, are constantly exposed to traumatic events. As natural disasters and extreme weather events increase, the need for first responders will increase, leaving a more significant portion of the population susceptible to higher rates of PTSD, among other mental illnesses.
Similarly to low-income families, people experiencing homelessness are at a much higher risk during any natural disaster or extreme weather event. This is because they have little to no shelter to protect them from the elements and tend to have poor access to health care to treat any effects from their direct exposure to these natural disasters.
Aside from that, about one-third of people experiencing homelessness already suffer from a mental health issue (6).
Preexisting mental health conditions have also been linked to a three-fold increase in the likelihood of a given person dying during an extreme weather event (6).
While each of the case studies below demonstrates entirely different communities in virtually opposite landscapes, they each represent areas in which the community is closely tied to the landscapes and being in the regions that are already significantly impacted by climate change.
A study conducted in Eastern Australia found that people in high disturbance areas were found to have “significantly higher” emotional disturbance (1).
Many of the study’s participants also noted a feeling of helplessness, where they felt like they had no control over the changes made to their homelands. One participant said, “They won’t listen to me. What do I do?” (1).
For far too many, they feel the issue and recognize that something must be done to stop the environmental degradation. Still, they cannot get the people who can enact significant scale change to listen to them to make fundamental changes.
Northern Canada offers a slightly different viewpoint from the study of Eastern Australia as the Canadian research focuses on indigenous peoples, more specifically, with Inuit communities.
Their sense of grief tended to be more from a loss of the ability to move about the land/ice and hunt/fish in the same ways they have traditionally been able to (2).
In particular, these Inuit communities tended to feel a profound loss of connection to their land.
How To Deal With Solastalgia
Like any other cause of mental health degradation, we must fight solastalgia from the source: eliminate the issues causing it, like climate change.
One of the things that helps the most when feeling incredibly anxious about environmental issues is fighting for change. We also find it helpful to find other people who are fighting for change.
Although it is essential to advocate for change, it is also imperative to rest and take care of yourself in other ways. Like all other mental health issues, things like exercising and getting outside can be highly effective at mitigating the effects of solastalgia.
How Is Climate Change Impacting Human Health More Broadly?
A growing body of research is finding links between events associated with climate change and adverse effects on the physical health of humans. This includes a rise in vector-borne and food-borne diseases, chronic and acute respiratory illnesses, heat and extreme weather-related deaths, malnutrition resulting from food insecurity, and many more (3).
The mere thought of these possibilities has the potential to be anxiety-inducing for anyone. Not to mention that these are only the health impacts that we have already seen. It is more than likely that as climate change worsens, these health impacts will worsen as well.
Climate Change Today
Every year, we are breaking records for the hottest year and most carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Across the world, there have been record-breaking fires in recent years.
Both California and Colorado saw their largest fires in 2020, and Australia experienced a summer full of wildfires.
While the impact of wildfires is being felt worldwide, the areas feeling the most significant increase in temperatures are in the coldest regions of the world: Siberia.
Siberia broke a record in 2020 for the hottest temperature sensed in the Arctic in history (7). The Arctic and other cold regions tend to be more sensitive to climate change and warming due, in part, to positive feedback loops such as glacial retreat and, more generally, ice melting.
When this ice melts, it leaves exposed rock and soils with a much lower albedo than the ice there before.
This means that the Earth absorbs more of the incoming solar radiation rather than reflecting it out to space, effectively leading to more significant amounts of warming and thus more ice melting, completing the cycle. The Arctic is warming at about two times the rate of other places on Earth (7).
The melting of land ice also contributes to sea-level rise, which impacts small islands most greatly. So, as these positive feedback loops wreak havoc on the Arctic, it also leads to impacts across the world.
Generally speaking, developing countries are more likely to feel the impacts of climate change more strongly. This is partly because these countries tend to have fewer resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, it is also because first-world countries tend to outsource the impacts of their consumption to other countries.
This can be seen in how the United States has frequently dealt with its trash: by shipping it across the world for other countries to deal with.
But, it is also seen in how marginalized groups are often the ones living closest to the mines, oil drills, superfund sites, landfills, and most other areas, which are bad for the environment and the health of those living near.
Climate Change And Solastalgia
It is well accepted that mental health (along with human health more broadly) is likely to decrease as climate change worsens and becomes more of one’s everyday experiences (2).
Climate changes and worsened natural disasters have already been associated with a myriad of mental health impacts including, but not limited to: depression, anxiety, sadness, distress, hopelessness, alcoholism, drug use, suicidal thoughts and attempts, pre and post-traumatic stress disorders, and loss of identity (2).
As the effects of climate change worsen and are seen more by the everyday person, relationship stress, displacement of communities, and aggression and violence will continue all likely rise (3).
Climate change has been directly linked to increases in wildfires, flooding, and drought, all of which have been well studied and have been proven to have adverse effects on one’s mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, psychological distress, and anxiety mood disorders (4,5).
Multiple studies have also found links between extreme weather events and suicidal and homicidal thoughts. After Hurricane Katrina, suicidal thoughts increased from 2.8% to 6.4%, and suicidal plans increased from 1% to 2.5% in the first 18 months following the event (6).
In the six months following Hurricane Andrew in the 1990s, suicide-homicide rates doubled in Miami, Florida (6).
Aside from the direct impacts of the literal extreme weather events on one’s mental health, severe weather events are also linked to less exercise, and one may not be able to spend time outside.
A lack of activity has been linked to higher rates of mental health issues.
These factors compound another positive feedback cycle of sorts, where climate change worsens, and solastalgia worsens, which may disconnect and disempower people to fight for the change that we need to be seeing in our world, which only leads to the worsening of environmental issues.
Ecological grief is grief from experiences or anticipated environmental losses due to environmental change (2).
This article argues that acknowledging our ecological grief allows us to put more energy toward solving our environmental issues as we accept that they are inherently tied to our emotional and physical well-being.
On the flip side, while environmental changes and extreme weather events can undoubtedly cause feelings of hopelessness, they can also encourage people to come together with their communities to create meaningful change in a positive way.
Solastalgia is a growing issue, which will only continue to grow as our environment degrades. Hopefully, as the world comes to grips with climate change directly impacting our mental health, there will begin to be more information about mitigating these effects.
If you are feeling the effects of solastalgia, you are not alone. So many more people than will admit it are feeling some effects from eco-anxiety and things of the like.
Significant environmental degradation will inevitably cause changes to people’s mental health as they must experience their homes changing, potentially irreversibly. It is normal, but we must work to avoid it and environmental degradation at all costs, both for our mental health and the health of this planet.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.
Celeste loves being outdoors doing just about anything you can think of. If not, you’ll find her hitting the books 📗 relating to Ecology & evolutionary biology 🌿 or atmospheric and ocean science 🌊.