The growing toll of climate trauma on the mental health of Australians

The word “solastalgia” comes from a combination of the words solace (comfort), algos (pain or suffering) and nostalgia.

The word might be different, but the concept is familiar across time and culture. It describes Disney character Moana’s pain at seeing her island burning, or Dorothy’s distress in a Kansas tornado.

Glenn Albrecht, an Australian Professor of Sustainability, introduced the word “solastalgia” to the world in 2003 as he watched the march of an open cut mine across the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales.

“Hundreds of square miles of mines, power stations and coal transport infrastructure had converted the once verdant floor of the valley of the Hunter River into what one local mayor called a ‘moonscape’,” Albrecht explains on his website.

To research “solastalgia” Albrecht and his colleagues looked at both mining impacts and the experience of long-term chronic drought on rural people in Eastern Australia.

And it is in connection with climate change that the term, and the concept, has continued to gain traction.

Also in Cosmos: Australia’s top health researchers highlight threat of climate change

In the Climate Council’s recent report, Climate Trauma: The Growing Toll of Climate Change on the Mental Health of Australians, a poll shows that more than half of the people who had experienced a weather disaster since 2019, believed their mental health had been “somewhat impacted”. One in five of those people believed the impact had been “major or moderate”.

The report also found the disasters did not impact all people equally.

“Those who have contributed the least to the problem – including people in developing nations, young people, Indigenous peoples, and people on lower incomes – are being hit hardest by the impacts of climate change,” the report noted.

The greater impact on First Nations people, it says, is due to a deep connection with place and culture, and may be due to heightened vulnerability due to remote locations and disadvantage.

“When country is hurting, we are hurting, because we are so deeply connected to this land, to our islands,” Kulkalaig woman and marine scientist Tishiko King from the Torres Strait, is quoted as saying.

Researchers at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health have also recently reviewed existing literature on solastalgia, with a close look at the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Homesickness at Home: A Scoping Review of Solastalgia Experiences in Australia”, released in February, says external forces such as extreme weather events or mining activities, could cause landscape or seascape changes that could lead to feelings of “psychological desolation about its transformation”.

“A lack of solace can erode our sense of place, belonging and identity, through the disconnection and powerlessness felt in response to unwelcome environmental changes,” the review says.

And the incidence of solastalgia is expected to grow as the world experiences an increase in severe weather events.

Read more in Cosmos on The challenge of compound weather events

Eight of the 18 papers included in the review related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences of solastalgia, and all of them talked about the connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the land, sea, animals, spirituality, kinship and culture.

“A further 85 per cent of the papers … described feelings of loss and sadness relating to the need to be on Country, but seeing their Country change before them,” the review says.

“The use of maladaptive coping mechanisms such as alcoholism and gambling were found to be used as a response to solastalgia-related distress from the changing land and Country, which, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, directly results from the ongoing effects of colonisation.”

The review also looked at whether the papers included ways solastalgia could be addressed in Australia.

“These recommendations all similarly suggest that any potential intervention needs to be place-sensitive, resilience-building, and embrace traditional knowledge from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” the review says.

The review noted there was still a lot to learn about solastalgia, particularly from the perspective of First Nations people.

“As climate change worsens, solastalgia is expected to become increasingly relevant to all Australians.

“Further research is needed to heighten the awareness of solastalgia and other negative impacts of climate change and to further explore practical implications through community-driven mental health interventions and mitigatory responses.”

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