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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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!

InukBook Project Featured in Canadian Geographic

This past week, members of the InukBook Team attended the Adaptation Canada conference in Ottawa, Ontario, including Dr. Sherilee Harper, Dr. James Ford, Anna Bunce, Derrick Pottle, and Jamie Snook. I had the privilege of representing the team, and presenting our project to a large audience of researchers, decision-makers, government representatives, Indigenous leaders, NGOs.

A journalist from Canadian Geographic wrote a feature on our project, highlighting the potential the InukBook has to support Inuit in making near real-time decisions through active monitoring of environment and health conditions. As an excerpt explains:

All the data that’s collected is specifically meant to meet local and regional needs and priorities,” said Willox. “While we expect much of it will be able to be expanded and inform other parts of the polar North, the key right now is to find a way for Nunatsiavut residents to be able to respond to what they’re experiencing at both the climatic change level and the impacts on health.”

To read the article, click on the picture below.

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Introducing… the InukSUK Program in Nunatsiavut, Labrador

For the past two years, I’ve been working with some wonderful folks in Nunatsiavut, Labrador to conceptualize, design, and develop an Inuit-led, Inuit-run community-based environment and health monitoring program. The InukSUK program is based on Inuit-identified priorities, ways of knowing, and cultural contexts, and unites cutting-edge app technology with traditional knowledge and storytelling. It’s an exciting new project, and we’re just in the early stages.

If you’re interested in learning more, click on the picture to read the full article, free online.


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Big thanks to all the amazing people with whom I get to work:

Dr. Sherilee Harper, Dr. Dan Gillis, Charlie Flowers, Inez Shiwak, Dr. Chris Furgal, Dr. James Ford, Michele Wood, Tom Sheldon, Anna Bunce, Alex Sawatzky, Oliver Cook, and the Rigolet Inuit Community Government. And of course, to all the amazing people in Rigolet who have lent their time, ideas, wisdom, expertise, and knowledge to the development of this app, and will make the program possible. Nakummek!

Graduate Student Reflection by Alex Sawatzky

Almost immediately upon returning from my trip to Rigolet in February, I was faced with the unavoidable, arguably unanswerable, question: so, how was it?

Even after having had time to reflect and process everything, I still struggle with answering this question. There is no way I can articulate exactly how I feel about Rigolet, about the incredible people I get to work with here, and about the project that I am lucky enough to be a part of. I think this struggle with putting my feelings into words is largely due to the fact that the project, the people, and the place are all intertwined, and they all became a part of my life so easily and so quickly that my words have trouble catching up to my emotions.

Before my first trip to Rigolet this past October, I was incredibly nervous. I was so intimidated at the prospect of being involved in such a large, interdisciplinary project. I didn’t exactly know where I would fit, let alone what the community would think of me. But as soon as I stepped off that first Air Labrador flight, all my fears disappeared and I knew I would never be the same.

Fast forward a few months, and before I knew it, I was back on a plane headed North with Dan, Oliver, and Ashlee. It was an amazing feeling, and an enormous privilege, to have the opportunity to return to Rigolet. Again, I was nervous, but this time my pre-trip jitters had more to do with being overwhelmingly excited to continue moving this project forward, to reconnect with people in the community, and to experience winter in all its Northern glory.

For a bit of background, our research involves the participatory development of a surveillance system, led by the community of Rigolet, to to track and respond to changes in the environment and resulting impacts on health and wellbeing. The basis of the approach we’re taking to build this project is to listen, learn, understand, and then respond to what the community needs and wants. To start this process, back In October we asked members of the community five main questions in a series of interviews and focus groups: (1) what are some important issues with regards to the environment and health; (2) what sorts of changes in the environment and resulting health impacts are you noticing in your community; (3) of these changes, what do you think is important to monitor/track; (4) how are you already keeping track of these changes; and (5) what sorts of tools/technologies (if any) are you using to do so?

As I was preparing to return in February, I thought critically about what we had learned from the community thus far, and how we might build off these initial discussions surrounding important environment-and health-related issues. However, in order to build from these discussions and move forward with the project in an appropriate way, I first needed to develop a deeper understanding of the reasons why these issues were important, who they were important to, and how they were prioritized. In short, I needed to ask some new questions.

I sat down with many of the same individuals who I had met with in October to present the preliminary findings and ask for their feedback. Then, I asked: (1) why are these issues important to you; (2) how would you prioritize these issues; (3) what are some ideas you have that could help make this program engaging and easy for people to use?

With each person or group I spoke with, my mind was blown over and over again by the depth and breadth of wisdom that is held in Rigolet. One of the key points brought up in this round of brainstorming sessions was that we need to work together to create a program that wouldn’t necessarily feel like a “program” – we need to create something that can be seamlessly incorporated into day-to-day life. Conversations like these made me realize over and over again what an honour it is to be working with and learning from this community. As always, the ways in which people described their connections to and relationships with the land absolutely blew me away. Although I will never even begin to know the true depth of the love that’s shared here between the land and its people, I am so grateful to be taking part in this learning journey.

During our trip, we also had the opportunity to engage in some hands-on, experiential learning on the land. Within a few hours of arriving in Rigolet, we took off with Sandi and Karl – our gracious hosts and dear friends – to spend the weekend at their cabin on English River – about a 2.5-hour skidoo ride outside of the community (mind you, this same trip typically takes Sandi and Karl about 1.5 hours). From the moment we left, we knew this would be the adventure of a lifetime. We left Rigolet in the late afternoon, and as we were making our way across Lake Melville we witnessed the most stunning sunset any of us have ever seen. The only description that somewhat captures this experience is that it felt like gliding above the surface of the clouds; hard to tell where the ice ended and the sky began. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of this magical experience because it was way too cold to stop and pull out my camera. Yet, there is something to be said for just living in the moment and absorbing the surroundings without viewing them through a lens. Moreover, there is no way a photo could have captured that kind of beauty anyway (at least, no photo that I could take).

Our weekend at the cabin was filled with fun, adventures, and delicious food (everything tastes better when cooked on a wood stove). We had a massively successful ice fishing escapade, and Oliver and I even skinned our first rabbits under Sandi’s patient instruction and watchful eye. Sandi and Karl, I don’t think we can thank you enough for keeping us full, safe, warm, and smiling.

This experience also gave us many important insights that will be absolutely crucial to incorporate into our project as we learn to better understand how technological tools can help people keep track of various environmental observations and changes while they are on the land. For example, our phones and cameras would freeze at times, so using them outside in certain conditions was not feasible and is something we need to account for in developing the project. There was definitely something to be said about learning how to navigate through these unanticipated challenges firsthand.

Upon reflection, I am realizing that this project, these people, and this place all share the same part of my heart – a part of my heart that I most certainly didn’t realize was missing until I found it. I feel so fortunate to be working with a team of community partners and researchers that is so incredibly supportive of each other. We hold the same basic values, share a deep and indescribable love of the North, and we take our research as seriously as we do our long underwear and scavenger hunts. Through these experiences, I’m finding that in order to do your best work and be your best self, it helps to be surrounded by people who bring out the best parts of you.

In terms of the place, its immense beauty never ceases to amaze me. There are really no words, only feelings. The colours are brighter, the food is tastier, the air is fresher, and life feels more authentic. It’s a place where I can let my guard down, open myself to change, and challenge myself to grow. But no matter what I say about it or how I try to describe it, there is so much more that I can’t even begin to describe. That which no words can capture. I truly feel as though I left a part of my heart there. This is something I struggle with articulating because I know that no matter how much I learn about/love this place, I will always be an outsider, a stranger to the land. I will never know the love that these people have for their homeland, and that which the land has for them. So thank you, Rigolet, for welcoming us Southerners with open arms and allowing us to share in your incredible beauty and wonder. As I’m slowly running out of words to capture how I feel about working, learning, loving, and growing in this place, I’ll call upon the help of Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway author:

“To be struck by the magnificence of nature is to be returned again, in those all too brief moments, to the innocence that we were born in. Awe. Wonder. Humility. We draw it into use and are altered forever by the unquestionable presence of the Creator. All things ringing true together. Carrying that deep sense of communion back into our work-day life, everyone we meet becomes the direct beneficiary of our having taken the time for connection, prayer, and gratitude. This is what we are here for – to remind each other of where the truth lies and the power of simple ceremony.”

Alex Sawatzky is a PhD Student at the University of Guelph, working with myself and Dr. Sherilee Harper

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.