The Impact of Climate Change on Inuit Mental Health

Ashlee Cunsolo Willox describes how changing climatic conditions and decreasing sea ice levels are exacerbating mental health problems for Inuit people in Nunatsiavut, Labrador.

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“Inuit thrive on the ice. I mean, we’re people of the ice. We’re Sikumiut.”

I’m sitting in a sun-lit office in the Town Council building, listening to Charlotte Wolfrey talk about changes in sea ice. Ms. Wolfrey is the AngajukKâk (mayor) of the Inuit community of Rigolet, a remote fly-in town of 300 people situated on the North Coast of Labrador, Canada, and the Southern-most Inuit community in the world. I’m working with a team of Inuit and non-Inuit researchers on a multi-year project examining potential impacts of climate change and related environmental alterations on health and wellness.

The questions of how changes in temperature and climate are affecting her community have been a priority for Wolfrey over the past few years. In response, she has been leading several multi-year research projects to examine how all of these changes are disrupting travel patterns, changing hunting opportunities, and negatively affecting health and wellness.

Wolfrey is right to be concerned. Inuit in Nunatsiavut have been experiencing rapid changes, including increasing seasonal temperatures, changes in weather and snow patterns, and alterations in plant and animal behaviour. In particular, there has been a rapid decline in sea ice in recent years, which is causing significant disruptions to Inuit culture and livelihoods.

rigolet6Inuit need ice. They want it. And lots of it.

Inuit use ice to access hunting and fishing grounds, to travel to their cabins, and to visit other communities. Ice also allows people to simply get out, and ‘go off’ on the land. As one of the health workers in Nunatsiavut explained, “Going out on the land is just as much a part of our life as breathing. Really, we are so close to the land. So if we don’t get out then, for our well-being, it’s like taking part of your arm away. It’s like you are not fulfilled.” The presence of ice, then, is essential to overall mental health and well-being of Inuit communities. And, as I have learned from the last five years of working with Wolfrey and Inuit throughout Nunatsiavut, climate change and declining sea ice are serious and emerging mental health stressors.

Inuit in Nunatsiavut have expressed a wide range of emotions, including sadness, anger, frustration, stress and distress, as a result of unreliable ice conditions and disruptions to livelihoods and cultural activities, such as hunting, trapping, fishing, and harvesting. They shared that they feel grief for the changes in the landscape and the loss of activities. They feel helpless and anxious—helpless because they can’t do anything to stop these changes, and anxious because they wonder what it will mean for their communities. Many people also shared that without an ability to get out on the land, they felt ‘stuck’ in the community—an experience which one individual described this as “reverse cabin fever”. For people such as the Inuit, who are used to being out on the land all the time, suddenly finding themselves unable to leave the community and participate in cultural activities is negatively impacting mental health and well-being.

Being out on the land is also a form of ‘medicine’ for Inuit mental health, which helps to soothe current stresses and assists in managing or coping with previous traumas. Without being able to go off to recharge and refresh, and with suddenly being in the community with little to do, some people are beginning to use more alcohol and drugs, in order to cope and to fill their time. In addition, some Inuit have expressed that they are beginning to have suicidal thoughts, due to the loss of their livelihood and a decreased sense of self-worth, in combination with other mental health stressors.

This certainly does not imply that climate change is directly causing drug and alcohol abuse or suicide. These are, after all, complicated, multi-faceted issues, emergent from numerous personal, social, historical, psychological, and economic factors. From what Inuit in Nunatsiavut shared, however, it appears that climatic and environmental changes are additional mental health stressors.

Inuit are already disproportionately experiencing the biophysical effects of global climate change. Now, it appears they may also be among the first in the world to experience the psychological impacts too.

After a pause, Wolfrey continues: “And if Rigolet is warming up with global warming, is this going to be what our winters are like? I don’t know how much longer we’re going to trust the ice. And if this is what our future is going to be, what are we going to do? What does it mean for us?”

With that, we both go quiet and continue to stare at the open water, weighing the magnitude of a future without ice and of a future for people who rely intimately on that ice.

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Ashlee Cunsolo Willox is Canada Research Chair (Tier II) and an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Nursing and Indigenous Studies at Cape Breton University. @CunsoloWillox

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