The Mental Health Impacts of Ecological Grief in a Changing Climate

The ecologist (in a more than scientific sense) is someone who is touched by this loss in such a way as to mourn the toll of extinction instituted by human exemptionism and exceptionalism. She is bereft, and yet also understands that this feeling, her being touched by irrevocable loss, is itself a matter of realizing the existence of a sense of an ecological and ethical and political community with other species.
Mick Smith, 2013, p. 29

In 2016, I participated in the Advanced Study Institute, hosted by the Transcultural Psychiatry group at McGill University, led by Dr. Lawrence Kirmayer. The 2016 theme was Psychiatry for a Small Planet, and brought together an international group of researchers working on various aspects of mental health, nature, and the environment.

I was invited to speak on the ways in which ecological grief manifests within a changing climate in the North based on the Nunatsiavut-led research on climate change and mental health, and what it teaches us about our relationships with the more-than-human worlds.

Stimulating a Canadian Narrative for Climate Action

For the last few years, I’ve been working with a group of over 60 scholars, scientists, and decision-makers from throughout Canada, and representing multiple disciplines and backgrounds, to discover and promote possible pathways towards a low-carbon economy.

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Working together with this group, and with representatives from civil society from Coast to Coast to Coast, we produced a set of insights and recommendations for climate change actions and potential models for engagement.

The resulting article, Stimulating a Canadian Narrative for Climate, was just published through Open Access in FACETS. Click on the picture below to access the article in full text.

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Mourning Nature Release Date

mourning-natureIn May 2017, an edited collection that myself and Dr. Karen Landman from the University of Guelph have been working on for several years will be available through McGill-Queen’s University Press. This book was an absolute privilege and honour to work on, and the chapters within tell powerful, moving, and important stories about the ways in which we mourn nature, what this mourning can tell us about ourselves, and how this mourning can be mobilized for political and ethical change. Order here.

We are facing unprecedented environmental challenges, including global climate change, large-scale industrial development, rapidly increasing species extinction, ocean acidification, and deforestation – challenges that require new vocabularies and new ways to express grief and sorrow over the disappearance, degradation, and loss of nature.

Seeking to redress the silence around ecologically based anxiety in academic and public domains, and to extend the concepts of sadness, anger, and loss, Mourning Nature creates a lexicon for the recognition and expression of emotions related to environmental degradation. Exploring the ways in which grief is experienced in numerous contexts, this groundbreaking collection draws on classical, philosophical, artistic, and poetic elements to explain environmental melancholia. Understanding that it is not just how we mourn, but what we mourn that defines us, the authors introduce new perspectives on conservation, sustainability, and our relationships with nature.

An ecological elegy for a time of climatic and environmental upheaval, Mourning Nature challenges readers to turn devastating events into an opportunity for positive change.

Contributors include Glenn Albrecht (Murdoch University, retired); Jessica Marion Barr (Trent University); Sebastian Braun (University of North Dakota); Ashlee Cunsolo (Labrador Institute of Memorial University); Amanda Di Battista (York University); Franklin Ginn (University of Edinburgh); Bernie Krause (soundscape ecologist, author, and independent scholar); Lisa Kretz (University of Evansville); Karen Landman (University of Guelph); Patrick Lane (Poet); Andrew Mark (independent scholar); Nancy Menning (Ithaca College); John Charles Ryan (University of New England); Catriona Sandilands (York University); and Helen Whale (independent scholar).

eNuk App Featured on CBC’s Spark

In December, our Team was featured on CBC’s Spark, discussing the eNuk app, a community-designed and community-led environment and health monitoring system designed by Inuit in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut.

 

For generations, the Labrador Inuit have relied on traditional knowledge to understand the intricacies of their landscape and seascape: Which ice is safe, where animals congregate, and so on.

But climate change is, well, changing all that.

And in an area where a misstep can cost a life, community members and researchers have come together to make eNuk, a smartphone and tablet app that allows people to share pictures and information about the land.

To listen, click here.

To read a longer article, and watch a short video, click here.

Congratulations to Inez Shiwak, Winner of the Inuit Recognition Award

Written by Sherilee Harper

The Inuit Recognition Award is a national prize that recognizes Inuit who are making strong efforts towards meaningful Inuit involvement in Arctic research. Each year, the award is given to one recipient who has shown excellence in research.  The award is facilitated by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which is the national representational organization that protects and advances the rights and interests of Inuit in Canada.

Inez Shiwak was awarded the prize this year, recognizing her outstanding research leadership and accomplishments in Arctic research.

Ashlee Cunsolo and I had the immense pleasure and privilege to present Inez Shiwak with the Inuit Recognition Award at the ArcticNet #ASM2016. Below is a copy of our speech.

Inuit Recognition Award Speech, 2016

Ashlee: Thank you for the introductions, Rodd, and good evening everyone. I’m Ashlee Cunsolo, the Director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University.

Sheri: And I’m Sherilee Harper, an Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph.

Ashlee: It gives us great pleasure to be announcing the recipient tonight for this award. We have worked with this individual for 7 years, and can say, without a doubt that she had changed the ways in which we approach and conduct research, and the ways in which we understand the transformative potential that research has to make positive social change, if led by Inuit and responsive to Inuit needs and priorities.

On Tuesday morning, ITK President Natan Obed spoke about the ways in which Inuit bring important diversity and richness to Arctic science and no one better exemplifies this than the recipient of this award.

Sheri: A quick listing of the recipient’s research experience will illustrate this diversity and richness. She has conducted research in food security, water quality, cultural continuity and preservation, knowledge sharing and translation, climate change and health, mental health, and youth engagement. She has conducted research through interviews, focus groups, and surveys, has taken water and hair samples and conducted scientific testing, and has pioneered the use of participatory digital media in the North.

From this research, she has given over 50 oral presentations, participated in over 30 poster presentations, is an author on 15 peer-reviewed publications and 2 book chapters in various roles, with several forthcoming or under review. She has worked on the creation of over 40 digital stories, was a lead on 1 documentary film, and is currently working on another.

Ashlee: While this list of research accomplishments is nothing short of amazing, what is truly impressive is the ways in which others wrote about her in the nomination package. We would like to share some of these quotations today:

“From a member of the federal government: “Overall, I know [her] to be an incredibly talented researcher and exceptional person. What she has done, and is currently doing, for Inuit-led research in the North not only benefits research and government, it has powerful impacts for Inuit themselves. [She] provides a model, and a standard, for how community-based research should be conducted, and has demonstrated time and time again the benefits that can come from research that is designed and driven by Inuit, for Inuit.”

Sheri: From a Rigolet resident: “With [her] at the helm… we can be assured that the benefits stemming from her efforts transcend boundaries beyond academia and into the real-life environment and health issues we are currently facing in our community, and that the benefits are sustained into the future. …I am honoured to be able to work so closely with [her]. She embodies the spirit and strength of our community, and she plays an influential role in inspiring this spirit and strength in our youth so that it is perpetuated and sustained for years to come.”

Ashlee: From a government partner: “Research priorities and concerns in the North must be put forward by Inuit communities themselves, and these communities must have control over the development and direction of all decisions and actions. Not only is [she] a talented researcher and respected leader in her community, she is an advocate for collaboration between governments and Inuit stakeholders to develop and evaluate culturally-acceptable and effective research and knowledge translation. … [Her] efforts at the forefront of such research create a shared sense of political and cultural resiliency and self-determination among Inuit in Canada. Her work is a testament to the importance of Inuit autonomy and control over their own research and for sharing information with others in the hopes of creating further awareness and policy change.”

Sheri: And finally, from one of the many graduate students with whom the recipient has supported and mentored: “As researchers, we are unbelievably fortunate for the openness, kindness, thoughtfulness, and knowledge that she shares with us. It is people like [her] that are changing research for the better, one reflection, decision, project, and grad student at a time. … She is open, kind, and supportive of students doing work with the community, and she never ceases to amaze me with her dedication to being involved in Arctic research. It is truly inspiring to see this happening in my journey as a young researcher, and I know that these experiences have positively impacted by own development, and will carry forward as I continue in my career.”

We are incredibly privileged to work with this individual, and are so thrilled that her wonderful work and contributions, which are done with great humour and much humbleness, are recognized with this award.

Ashlee & Sheri: It gives us great pleasure to announce that the 2016 recipient of the Inuit Recognition Award is Inez Shiwak, from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut!

ArcticNet Posters

One of my favourite components of the  ArcticNet Annual Scientific Meetings is the poster sessions. It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with a diversity of research and to interact with people — especially students — from all different disciplines.

Many of the students with whom myself and Dr. Sherilee Harper work presented their posters at the conference, covering a wide variety of community-led and community-engaged health research projects: caribou and Indigenous wellbeing; community-led environment and health monitoring; maternal health and place attachment; climate change and mental health; and water and health.

Congratulations David Borish and Alex Sawatzky for their 1st and 2nd place wins in the Student Poster Competition

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Open Letter Re Muskrat Falls

PDF Copy of Letter

October 14, 2016

Re: Open Letter on Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Decision on Muskrat Falls

As professors and health researchers who have had the great privilege and pleasure of working in the Nunatsiavut region of Labrador for almost a decade, we are writing this open letter to express our perspectives on the recent decisions to not act on scientific evidence to remove organic materials (topsoil, vegetation, and trees) from the Muskrat Falls reservoir and surrounding area.

Under the current development scenario, not only will there be dramatic environmental alterations in an area that is historically and culturally significant to the Indigenous Peoples of Labrador, but research indicates that people in the region will be exposed to methylmercury well above regulatory guidelines from Health Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The science is clear: without removing organic material from the site to be flooded, methylmercury levels in the Lake Melville ecosystem are anticipated to significantly increase, leading to contamination of important country food sources in the region, and leading to increased methylmercury exposure for Indigenous peoples in the region reliant on these food sources. Methylmercury exposure can have harmful health impacts: scientific literature and medical studies show that long-term dietary exposure to methylmercury is linked to brain development problems in children and can damage the nervous system in adults; and children who are exposed while they are in the womb can have deficits in cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor skills, and visual spatial skills.

It is a cultural right of Inuit and Indigenous peoples in the region to continue to rely on the land for sustenance, livelihoods, and food security, as their ancestors have for thousands of years. To disrupt important keystone food sources such as fish and seal, and render them inedible and harmful to human health, causes serious impacts to food sovereignty in the region and impacts cultural continuity, history, and heritage. Furthermore, this is a human rights issue – the right of Indigenous peoples in the region to continue to enjoy harvesting from the land for food security, culture, and wellbeing. As such, there is a human responsibility to respond based on the best available scientific evidence and Indigenous science and oral history. Economic compensation will never fully compensate for the loss of food security and cultural wellbeing that comes from actively engaging in land-based activities – activities that have sustained Indigenous people in Labrador for thousands of years. There will also be continued health and social disruptions, leading to increased healthcare costs for physical and mental health issues, and further needless financial burden on individuals, communities, and the government.

Mitigation is possible. The future of how this development continues can still be altered. There is still the opportunity to #MakeMuskratRight. There is still the opportunity to value human and environmental life and health above pressures of a large crown corporation, funded by tax payers, and follow the precautionary principle to ensure the continued survival – and thriving – of the First Peoples of Labrador who will experience the downstream effects.

As scientists and scholars, we stand in solidarity with the Nunatsiavut Government and their recommendations for the removal of trees, vegetation, and soil before flooding and for more environment-health monitoring and management with Inuit partnership. We also stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples of Labrador, with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and with all the concerned citizens and organizations who have expressed concern and condemnation for this development, and call for immediate evidence-based action to support human and environmental health, and for stronger, more respectful, and more authentic Nation-to-Nation relationships.

Sincerely,

Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo
Director
Labrador Institute of Memorial University
College of the North Atlantic Building
PO Box 490, Station B
Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL, A0P 1E0
E: ashlee.cunsolo@mun.ca | P: 709-896-4702
W: ashleecunsolowillox.ca
T: @AshleeCunsolo
Dr. Sherilee Harper
Assistant Professor in EcoHealth
Department of Population Medicine
Ontario Veterinary College
University of Guelph
Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1G 2W1
E: harpers@uoguelph.ca | P: 519-824-4120 ext. 58392
W: http://www.sherileeharper.com
T: @Sherilee_H