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Climate change has mental health risks, says Yellowknife doctor

NNSL file photo. Smoke from nearby forest fires blocks out the sun over Yellowknife Bay, turning the sky a eerie orange colour.

In 2014, the Northwest Territories saw its worst wildfire season since the 1990s, with three million hectares of land burned in one summer.

While the dry conditions that caused the fires have been linked to climate change, their psychological impacts on residents of Canada’s fastest warming region are just starting to be understood.

Through her research, Dr. Courtney Howard has been shedding light on how people are dealing with “eco-anxiety.”

A March 2017 report co-produced by the American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as  “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”

Howard is an emergency room physician in Yellowknife and one of the authors of the Lancet Countdown 2018 Report briefing for Canadian policymakers, which was released last year. The Lancet is one of the most well-respected medical journals in the world.

The report used research done in Canada – including interviews with Northerners affected by the 2014 wildfires – to explore the mental health effects of climate change.

NNSL file photo. Smoke from nearby forest fires blocks out the sun over Yellowknife Bay, turning the sky an eerie orange colour.

“As Yellowknifers who were here during that summer will remember, we had horrible air quality many days between mid-June and the end of August,” said Howard.

It was one of the most severe episodes of poor air quality in the city's history, she said.

In a two-pronged study, Howard and other researchers looked at the number of emergency department and clinic visits for respiratory and cardiovascular disease, as well outpatient asthma prescriptions.

“Basically we had about twice as much asthma as we usually do that summer,” said Howard.

They also spoke to residents about how the fire was affecting them emotionally.

“We interviewed about 30 community members from Ndilo, Dettah, Yellowknife and Kakisa in partnership with the Yellowknives Dene and Ka'a'gee Tu First Nation,” said Howard.

Residents detailed the effects the fires had on their lives including reduced physical activity, cabin fever, sadness, loneliness and a feeling of disconnection from the land.

“And also this feeling of worry about what this summer meant in the broader context of climate change,” she said.

In 2018, Howard, who is the NWT representative for the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) board of directors, published the findings in the medical journal the Lancet as part of a policy brief for the federal government.

Howard thought people would be interested in the recommendation of a carbon tax as the most effective treatment for the health emergency of climate change.

“But what ended up happening was everybody wanted to talk about eco-anxiety,” she said.

Howard has been doing presentations about her research in venues across the country for about eight years. Many of her audience members have shared their own ecological worries.

People in Quebec spoke about last summer's heat wave that led to 90 deaths, people in the prairies talked about drought and people in the West were talking about wildfires, she said.

“I often look out into the audience now and see one or two, usually young people, with tears in their eyes,” she said.

“I often have people come up to me at the end of my lectures and say, 'I’m a young person and I’m not sure whether I should have kids,' or 'I’m a young mum and I worry constantly about my children's future.'”

While it’s unclear how many people are suffering from eco-anxiety, a broad public conversation about the phenomenon is a step in the right direction, said Howard.

“Like so many aspects of mental health, it just hasn’t had the attention that would have been ideal,” she said.

People suffering serious anxiety disorders should consult a health care provider, said Howard, but for people experiencing a less severe malaise, seeking out community can be helpful.

“I think such a transformative step for so many people is to just leave the bubble of their internet,” she said.

“That blue hole that is so easy to disappear down at midnight that leads to ever-worsening statistics ... and instead take a step out of their house and go connect in person with friends and with people in their community.”

In times like these it’s even more important to be kind to yourself, family and neighbours, she said.

“It’s a time where if compassion reigns, we will rise as a society to where we need to be,” said Howard.

“And if instead anger and irritation and divisiveness win the day, we’re not going to have the outcome we want. Let that kindness and compassion start with these conversations, and I think that will carry through to the societal response that we need.”