How Climate Change Impacts Indigenous Mental Health

Jun 30, 2022
11:34 AM

Indigenous women wear protective face masks marked with messages that read in Portuguese “Get Out Salles” and protest phrases written on their arms which refer to the Minister of Environment Ricardo Salles, against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s proposals to allow mining on Indigenous lands, at the Esplanade of Ministries in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

“Eco-anxiety is a sign of connection to the world,” writes Britt Wray, a Human and Planetary Health Postdoctoral Fellow at the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, in her book Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis. “It is a normal reaction to the injustices being inflicted upon the planet and its living creatures.”

The issue of climate change goes beyond quitting plastic straws, reducing the carbon footprint, or re-purposing containers. There are psychological and emotional ramifications as well.

Wray discussed how the increased use of the terms “eco-anxiety” and “eco-grief” reflected a growing concern about environmental preservation. The first refers to the worries people perceive about an unpredictable future caused by climate change, and the second is the sadness resulting from adverse effects such as drought, fires, unpredictable weather patterns, rising water levels, and the loss of marine life.

Environmentalists and researchers created organizations such as the Climate Mental Health Network and Climate Psychiatry Alliance and brought awareness to this emerging field of study. Climate Psychiatry Alliance included a national directory of counselors. Two such advocates are professors, authors, and therapists Leslie Davenport, who worked with the general public, and Dr. Nicole Redvers, who treated Indigenous populations.

Davenport focused the last 12 years of her practice on how climate change impacts mental health and in 2017 published Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change, which “presents comprehensive theory, strategies and resources for addressing key clinical themes specific to the psychological impact of climate change.” A psychotherapist for 30 years, her clients included senior citizens, parents, environmental activists, and people who had been directly impacted by extreme weather changes, such as a couple from California who lost their home in a wildfire.

Young adults were perhaps Davenport’s most memorable clients, who were concerned about attending grad school, choosing a career, or having children in an unknown future. “People have become more aware of the path we are on that is leading to a future where climate changes are going to continue to become more extreme,” Davenport told Latino Rebels. “And even if they haven’t felt much of that directly, they’re waking up to the sense that there may not be a safe place to be.”

Dr. Redvers’ practice centered on Indigenous peoples. She herself is a member of a Northern Canadian tribe, the Deninu K’ue First Nation. In 2019 she published The Science of the Sacred: Bridging Global Indigenous Medicine Systems and Modern Scientific Principles, and in 2020 she helped develop the first Indigenous health PhD program at the University of North Dakota.

“We realized there was a substantial need in filling a gap of Indigenous health education, because there was really no other option for folks or students to consider a specialization within this area,” she said.

Dr. Redvers’ traditional homelands in Northern Canada experienced twice the global warming rate as the rest of the Americas, which resulted in heavy storms, changes in sea levels, coastal erosion, and permafrost that melted into the sea at higher rates. Lakes sunk into themselves, there was drought during harvests, and it became practically impossible to travel over what used to be frozen bodies of water, making it harder to attain supplies.

The physical health effects for the Metis, Inuit, and First Nations peoples were cardiovascular, respiratory, water, and food-borne diseases, according to the Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate report. Climate change exacerbated inequalities for coastal Canadian tribes that already existed, affecting air quality, personal safety, infrastructure, and even identity.

Having witnessed these coastal changes motivated Dr. Edvers to address and treat the mental health of her community. “This is the element that comes with [being] Indigenous community members,” she explained. “We have an obligation to the land and to ensure it is protected to the best of our abilities.”

A study done by researchers at the University of Auckland, titled “Indigenous climate change adaptation: New directions for emerging scholarship,” explored how mental health treatment needed to be decolonized for Native people adversely impacted by environmental changes to provide adequate policies and programs. There have been limited advances in this area, and Dr. Redvers has been at the forefront of the field, combining traditional Indigenous methods with modern systems of psychology to create treatments for Native peoples.

Mental health in Indigenous cultures is viewed as a holistic issue—the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual elements are taken into account. Dr. Redvers explained that the spiritual connection of Native peoples to the land goes beyond the loss of homes; it is the loss of sacred burial and land sites, of income, cattle, food insecurity as animals migrate or get parasites caused by climate change, plus the financial insecurity. In the aftermath, Native peoples are forced to find new homes and communities and new sources of income and other resources, not least of which food.

The profound Indigenous connection to nature has existed for centuries, including the dread and depression caused by environmental changes. Yet eco-anxiety and eco-grief have only now been assigned as descriptors that convey emotional reactions Native peoples are familiar with.

“It is a very Western construct,” said Dr. Redvers. “For traditional Indigenous, the essence of eco-psychology is foundational within the way traditional medicine is practiced. You don’t even have to describe it, because the ecological connection is inherent within the practice of supportive counseling.”

Additionally, Indigenous peoples carry generational trauma from genocide, forced assimilation, and persecution from colonization. According to statistics from Mental Health America, nearly one in five Indigenous people have had mental illness in the past year.

Davenport described the effects caused by climate change as an additional “layering of trauma,” which goes beyond the average person’s experience.

“Comparatively, if we existed in a situation where colonization and historical trauma were not the basis of the lived experience of many indigenous peoples, what we would see is ecological grief,” she explained.

A paper published earlier this year by researchers at the University of Sydney, titled “Indigenous mental health and climate change: A systematic literature review,” analyzed 23 studies on the subject from MEDLINE, Scopus, and Google Schools to examine the mental health effects of climate change on Native people and how they adapted. The cumulative research proved the conclusions Leslie and Dr. Edvers reached earlier.

“These historical traumas further intensified by ongoing socio-cultural and economic disadvantages that are reflected in higher rates of psychological illness, suicide, and behavioural issues including alcoholism and substance abuse,” the paper read.

Both therapists do not see the terms “eco-anxiety” and “eco-grief” being added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders anytime soon. The treatments for the symptoms are similar to those for anxiety and involve existing coping mechanisms such as resiliency skills, counseling, and medication already available to patients. Davenport recommends people self-soothe by seeking comfort in hobbies or joining support groups to work out their concerns.

Davenport’s hope for the future is for therapists to receive training in climate psychology to adequately treat and validate the concerns of their clients. She commented that access to therapy can be elitist and unaffordable, and she would like for therapy to be available to marginalized communities.

Dr. Redvers’ work continues to expand mental health treatments for Native communities by spreading awareness of their availability, bringing her first-person experience to her work, and addressing concerns unique to the communities.

Indigenous people are one of the most vulnerable ethnic groups, with higher rates of poverty and lower education rates. Many may lack access to resources such as counseling and are more likely to seek treatment within their tribe. They suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD than the general population.

Climate change harms their sensitive relationships to plants, water, animals, and land and threatens their way of life, including learned skills, customs, and traditions.

The awareness of emotional stressors caused by climate change continues to develop as people observe and experience the real-life consequences of the global climate crisis. While these anxieties may be difficult to deal with they can be used to catapult individuals into action. Awareness about our changing planet can be channeled into activism to improve the lives of those most affected.


Yesica Balderrama is a journalist and writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared on WNYC, NPR, Latino USA, PEN America, Mental Floss, and others. Twitter: @yesica_bald