Mental Health & Our Changing Climate

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 9.48.56 AMIn June 2014, the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica published an important report, Beyond Storms & Drought: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, which outlined the numerous direct and indirect pathways through which climate change and the resulting environmental alterations impact mental health.

Yesterday, an updated report, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance, was released and I am pleased to be an Editor and a Contributor on this report. The shared goal is to continue to increase awareness and understanding of the psychological impacts of climate change, and to continue dialogue on this important topic.


From the Introduction to the Report:

It is time to expand information and action on climate and health, including mental health. The health, economic, political, and environmental implications of climate change affect all of us. The tolls on our mental health are far reaching. They induce stress, depression, and anxiety; strain social and community relationships; and have been linked to increases in aggression, violence, and crime. Children and communities with few resources to deal with the impacts of climate change are those most impacted. To compound the issue, the psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness, and resignation are growing. These responses are keeping us, and our nation, from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate, and from building and supporting psychological resiliency.

This report also highlights work done in partnership with Inuit from throughout Nunatsiavut.

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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.

Coverage of Climate Change & Mental Health Research

Today, the Toronto Star published the second in a series of articles by Tyler Hamilton examining the many complex facets related to climate change and mental health, and featured our work in Nunatsiavut, Labrador.

Sometimes there are moments in life that change you, that alter you in ways that you can never really fully articulate… and that continue to teach you things years later. This research, and working with the Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut, Labrador, is one of the moments. Hearing the voices, experiences, and wisdom of the people with whom I work is humbling beyond belief. And dealing with, responding too, and hopefully mitigating the mental and emotional impacts of a rapidly changing climate and environment is something that continues, daily, to occupy my thoughts and drive my actions.


An excerpt:

Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, an assistant professor of indigenous studies at Cape Breton University, said the connection between mental health and climate change in Canada’s North is growing stronger and in “urgent” need of further investigation.

“There’s this dialogue that’s just waiting to leap out into the national and international consciousness,” she said. “In Canada, we have this active fishing culture, active farming culture, and large Arctic indigenous groups who are on the front lines of climate change, yet we have been really quiet on this topic.”

This is indeed a national dialogue that needs to happen in this country, and we are in a time in this country that I believe there is a willingness and and ability to listen and to act.

Thank you to Tyler Hamilton for his excellent reporting, and for his interest in this topic. His work is making sure this information and these voices get out, and for that, I am eternally grateful.


It was the time for listening…

Last night’s Learning from Knowledge Keepers class was intense. It was difficult. It was challenging. And it was inspiring. Horrific stories, experiences, and histories were shared, juxtaposed with the most tremendous resilience, strength, wisdom, forgiveness, and love, to which one could ever bear witness.

I had a hard time sleeping last night, and I suspect that I was not alone in this. I kept hearing Clark Paul’s powerful and eviscerating words in my head, and kept feeling the deep emotions of it was like to stand there, close to him, bearing witness to his pain and suffering, but also to his strength and his love. To say it was humbling, to say it was an honour, to say it changed me to hear those stories is a vast understatement.

I said last night that Clark tells his story with such courage and grace. He is a true warrior of the heart and the mind, and his strength of spirit is an utter privilege to be near. How does one honour a man such as Clark, and the many others who, like him, experienced unimaginable pain, suffering, and injustice?

There are no words to express what Clark, and thousands of others, went through in the Residential School System, and there is no way to ever fully articulate the gratitude that we have for Clark, and people like him, who are sharing their stories and reaching out beyond the hate, unimaginable pain, and terrifying suffering, to educate and to ensure atrocities like these never happen again.

What I would like to do, though, as a small token of gratitude, to Clark and to others, is share the words and responses from the Learning from Knowledge Keepers family that poured in from across the country and internationally during the class. They are beautiful, powerful, and full of love and support.

Together, they begin to tell a collective response to a truly shattering history and legacy in this country – one that continues on through intergenerational trauma, through on-going mental struggles, through the daily battling of pain and demons, through the many ways in which Survivors and their families must cope each day. They also tell a story of strength and solidarity, of people tuning in, connecting, learning, and being transformed.

 So Much History: 


So Much Outrage:


So Much Emotion:


So Much Power:


So Much Gratitude:


So Much Hope:


Sending Out Gratitude

Our deepest gratitude to Michael R. Denny and Karen A. Bernard, who ended the class with so much heart, sharing, and knowledge and who, unexpectedly, were brave enough to share their own experiences. Wela’lin. And of course, who introduced many to the continued atrocities being perpetuated on Survivors through the Indian Residential School Independent Assessment points system.

Special thanks also to the wonderful folks from Eskasoni Mental Health who provided support in the audience for this difficult night and challenging subject matter. Daphne Hutt-MacLeod, Jannine Paul, Arnold Sylliboy, Norma Gould, Billie Jean Morrison, Michael R. Denny, and Karen Bernard – words cannot express our gratitude to have you in the class, supporting us all, and for the work that you all do, daily, to ensure that the pain and suffering from the legacies of the Residential School system are mitigated.

And to Michael R: your singing was healing, moving, powerful, and emotional. Wela’lin for sharing your talents with the #taliaqCBU family, and for helping us reconnect and to heal.

Remember: there are always supports, always people to whom you can reach out. Be kind and gentle to yourself. Take good care. Reach out as needed, and draw strength from those you love and those whom you love.

Thank you to all who showed up last night and listened. Truly listened. And who witnessed the power of one man’s story, and allowed that story to change you. To quote Thomas King: “Don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.” 



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Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada Reports

Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Response to the Release of the Truth & Reconciliation Final Report

Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat

** Originally published on Cape Breton University’s Blog


Climate Change & Inuit Mental Health

Today, an agreement is being tabled at COP21, calling on over 200 countries to sign on. As we continue these national and international dialogues, it is important to remember human impacts, including human suffering, distress, and psychological impacts.

I am pleased to share this new ebook feature through Adjacent Government that was just released to coincide with COP21. Click on the picture below to access the article.

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Grief & Climate Change

As the discussions continue at COP21, and the sense of cautious optimism continues to grow that world leaders will reach a strong and binding agreement, I am thrilled to see discussions also growing around the ways in which climatic and environmental changes can cause grief and mourning.

Thanks to David Suzuki for writing a great article, Healing Humanity’s Grief in the Face of Climate Change, and featuring our work from Nunatsiavut, Labrador.

The interplay of environmental degradation and geopolitics has had alarming repercussions. Over the past decade alone, millions of people have been displaced by war, famine, and drought. The world is shifting rapidly as a result of climate change and there’s little doubt we’ll see increasing humanitarian crises. We must face this new reality as a global community.

Climate change is one of the most destabilizing forces in human history. We must deal with carbon emissions but we must also deal with human suffering. In Canada, Inuit are feeling the impacts disproportionately. Ice appears much later in the season and melts earlier. Changing wildlife migration patterns disrupt community livelihoods, land-based activities, and cultural practices.

Cape Breton University Canada Research Chair Ashlee Cunsolo Willox is working with Inuit to understand their communities’ climate-related mental and emotional health impacts, documenting anxiety, despair, hopelessness, and depression, increased family stress, drug and alcohol use, and suicide attempts. People are grieving for a way of life that is changing with the landscape.

These are conversations worth having. These are emotions worth considering.

Reflections from ‘Creating a New Legacy Conference’ by Alexandra Sawatzky

One of the great pleasures of my job is the opportunity to work with amazing students. I am constantly inspired by and in awe of all they do, and of the level of commitment, heart, and caring they put into their studies. This past week, PhD Student Alexandra Sawatzky, whom I am lucky enough to co-supervise with Dr. Sherilee Harper, attended the Creating a New Legacy Conference and wrote some reflections.

Reflections from “Creating a New Legacy” – October 6-7, 2015

Written by Alexandra Sawatzky, PhD student

This week I had the honour of attending the 2015 Aboriginal Mental Health and Wellness Conference, “Creating a New Legacy,” in Brandon, Manitoba. The overall purpose of this two-day gathering was to promote and create culturally-safe services with and for Indigenous peoples, while encouraging Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to work together with their heads, hearts, and hands. The tree from their logo represents what happens when Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples come together as one to create a new legacy for the betterment of all. It implies that by establishing strong roots and a commitment to growing in our understanding, empathy, and respect for each other, the tree – and humanity – will flourish. The core values of this conference were reflectiveness, responsiveness, relationships, and restoration, which resonated throughout the various presentations and sessions.

In the keynote address by Dr. Brenda Restoule, from Dokis First Nation and the Eagle Clan, emphasis was placed on the need to move towards proactive, strengths-based health programming models in Indigenous communities that focus on the gifts people already have – and help them use these gifts to move forward independently. Underlying these strengths-based models is the need for holistic approaches to healthcare that are developed, owned, and operated by Indigenous peoples. In order to do so, culture must be foundational.

In addition to strengths-based programming, Dr. Chandrakant Shah, Project Director of the Aboriginal Cultural Safety Initiative at Anishnawbe Health Toronto, stressed the importance of training healthcare providers in providing these programmes in culturally-safe way. Cultural safety is essentially the intentional act to recognize, respect, and nurture unique cultural identities. To be culturally safe, we must first prioritize empathy over compassion. Dr. Shah described compassion as infatuation, sympathy, or pity. Empathy, on the other hand, he described as the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. Only after you’ve done this will you truly understand another person’s world and associated worldviews. Cultural safety also requires a deep understanding of the historical contexts, ongoing colonial processes, and racism that continue to impact Indigenous peoples today. Particularly for non-Indigenous individuals involved in various aspects of healthcare, this means engaging with decolonization processes in all work that is done alongside Indigenous partners.

Following Dr. Shah’s presentation, Dr. Michael Hart, who is from Fisher River Cree Nation and is the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Social Work, provided further elaboration on cultural safety and decolonization. Dr. Hart began his presentation by unpacking the themes and processes of colonialism, stressing that colonial processes are two-way streets; while one party suffers, the other benefits. Those who benefit often have an internalized sense of power, and most aren’t able to recognize this, or else are too uncomfortable to do so. Culturally-safe approaches to healthcare services seek to break down these power imbalances, and recognize that there is more than one way of looking at the world. Such approaches require new skill sets and a new theoretical base – a move from “Indigenous” to “Indigenist” services. Dr. Hart explained that Indigenist services are centred around cultural revitalization for the political, social, and economic transformation of Indigenous peoples. This involves the re-setting of traditions and continued re-affirmation of the power they hold, can hold, and will hold. He ended with words that are shared by many Elders, which get at the very heart of Indigenous ways of being: “take what will help you go forward in a good way. Please leave the rest.”

Although I learned so much from my brief time here, I recognize learning is never-ending and I have a long road ahead of me. Learning, to me, is about becoming. Becoming a better, wiser, more empathetic person. Becoming who you need to be. Learning can – and should be – an uncomfortable, challenging process. I find that it is when I am most uncomfortable with what I’m learning that I truly become more knowledgeable – about the world around me, and about myself. This knowledge, put into practice, can grow into wisdom. As Barry French, one of the planning committee members, so eloquently stated in his closing address: “with this knowledge, with these teachings, comes an obligation to do something with them. Take what you’ve learned here, put it into your heart, and use it. Share it with others. Create a new legacy.”

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I had the pleasure of meeting with artist Eugene Ross, a descendant of the Sante Dakota Tribe, who has the largest Dakota collection in Manitoba. Mr. Ross took the time to show me how Dakota people made pemmican – a mixture of dried meat, fruits, and nuts pounded into a coarse powder and mixed with melted fat.


  1. Creating a New Legacy. (2015). Conference Program. Retrieved October 8, 2015 from: