Researchers set out to investigate the impact climate change is having upon the mental health of Canadians. Some in B.C. Some experts are warning that climate distress is already leading suicide attempts.
Salmon Arm was covered in wildfire smoke for several days. Just weeks earlier, nearly 600 people had been killed in a record heat dome.
When the town of Lytton, B.C., set a Canadian temperature record of 49.6 C — a day later burning to the ground — the evacuees added to the steady stream of patients at the Shuswap Lake General Hospital.
Lori Adamson, an emergency room doctor, recalls seeing stretchers lined up in a hallway. Her unit was overwhelmed by patients suffering from heat illness and smoke inhalation.
The suicides followed.
“A lot of the youth that I was seeing were attempting to commit suicide because of climate distress,” she told Glacier Media.
“They’re fearing that they’ll never outlive the climate disasters and global warming… they overtly expressed that.”
Adamson says at least three young patients she saw tried to end their life through a drug overdose because they feared climate change. Some were transferred to hospitals with higher care levels.
The doctor doesn’t know how or if all patients survived.
There is emerging evidence that government inaction on climate change is impacting young people’s health in severe ways. Last September, there was a global survey of 10,000 young people across 10 countries found nearly half of those between 16 and 25 reported psychological distress over climate change.
In some of the most telling signs, 58 per cent of respondents said governments were betraying future generations; 75 per cent said “the future was frightening.”
‘IT PROVOKES A SPIRAL’
The suicide rate in British Columbia has been steadily declining since 2014, when it reached its highest point. However, the provincial statistics hide important regional differences. As of 2018, B.C.’s Interior Health Authority recorded the highest rate of suicide deaths, with the Northern Health Authority following close behind.
It is unclear how climate change will impact these numbers. Experts are just beginning to explore the links between climate and mental health. After a year of severe weather events in British Columbia, this work has already revealed some important trends.
One StudyIn January 2022, data was released that showed that the heat dome which scorched British Columbia in the late June caused an average 13 percent increase in anxiety over climate change. However, the study did not examine the impact of climate change on suicide rates.
Study co-author Kiffer Card said he is not surprised climate anxiety is pushing people toward taking their own life.
“One of the main features of suicide is a sense of hopelessness,” said the epidemiologist, who studies the effects of climate change on mental health at Simon Fraser University. “Certainly, weather and worries about the future can give that extra push to end your life.”
Suicidal thoughts rarely arise from one factor. Card says that the combination effects of the ongoing opioid crisis, as well as a lack of cognitive ability and controls in certain people, can all trigger a mental crisis.
Some people look at the world around them and tell themselves, “Climate change is here. It’s burning down my neighbourhood. Where is my future?” said Card.
“It provokes a spiral.”
CANADA IN THE CROSSHAIRS – CLIMATE DISTRESS
There has been very little research to date on how climate change will impact suicide rates in Canada. But that’s changing.
“We know that eco-anxiety is a real thing — that is absolutely diagnosable — and that depression is also linked to people’s feelings of helplessness,” said Tim Takaro, a medical doctor and scientist studying the health impacts of climate change.
“What I don’t know is how many people with climate-related depression are going to take their lives.”
Takaro and I co-authored an earlier this year report on the health effects of climate changes in Canada. In 15 previous studies, suicide rates rose with high ambient temperature.
Other studies that looked at the impact of a warmer world on suicide rates show a grim picture.
In 2020, a group of researchers — including University of British Columbia environmental economics researcher Patrick Baylis — examined the link between suicide rates and temperature data across the U.S. and Mexico. Long-term historical data showed that suicide rates rose by 0.7% for every one degree Celsius rise in the average monthly temperature in the United States and 2.1% in Mexican municipalities.
Researchers found that the global temperature rise could cause between 9,000-40,000 more suicides in the two countries by 2050. That’s a change in suicide rates comparable to what’s estimated during an economic recession, suicide prevention programs or gun restriction laws, concluded the study.
And while it’s not clear how their findings apply to a more northerly jurisdiction like Canada, the study found “the effect is similar in hotter versus cooler regions and has not diminished over time.”
“Historical adaption,” the data suggests, is “limited.”
“It’s very chilling,” said Takaro of the results. “I don’t think it’s appreciably different from the U.S., only that it’s happening a little faster here.”
According to the International Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC), global warming is expected to accelerate by two to three times faster than the global average in Canada.
Mental health can be affected by much more than temperature. These same IPCC scientists discovered last month that temperature rise is contributing towards a growing mental health crisis. Global wildfire crisis.
This crisis is already upon us for many people in B.C.
GRIEF INTO ACTION
Raymond Ford and his wife, Janet, returned to the United States after a 17-year stay. The plan was to keep it simple — buy a chunk of land near 100 Mile House and live a quiet life.
Unfortunately for the couple, they came home the same year the BC Wildfire Service describes as “one of the worst wildfire seasons in British Columbia’s history.”
Ford and his wife temporarily stayed on a trailer that was parked on a ranch just outside of town. The region was devastated by fire, which destroyed large swathes forest and drove people from their homes.
The couple were among 65,000 people evacuated that year.
“At one point, we were surrounded by four fires,” said Ford.
Ford has Asperger syndrome. This is a condition that can cause extreme focus on one task and is often associated with autism spectrum disorders. He says it’s driven him to become a self-taught scientist. He has spent years selling and maintaining mass spectrometers. These complicated devices can be used to test everything, from the purity of cannabis and prescribed drugs to carbon dating an archaeological find.
But the neurodevelopmental disorder also makes it hard for Ford to regulate his emotions, a state made even more fragile after his father passed away a week before the fires.
Following 21 days of evacuation, Ford says the experience left him afraid to go near a campfire, and soon, he says he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I’ll never forget seeing that fire coming at me,” he said. “So much destruction.”
“It just goes to show you’re not in control of your life sometimes when something like this happens.”
Ford was able to regain control of his life. Since the 2017 fire season, Ford has immersed himself in the science of climate change, linking up with the Climate Emergency Forum, an advocacy group that has participated in the last two United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) climate change conferences.
When Ford and his wife finally moved onto their land, they started removing dead pine trees and old dead logs, anything that would act as fuel for another fire.
“I was born with a wonderful gift called Asperger’s,” he said. “What do you do? What can you control specifically?”
“The way my brain works, I take grief or pain and turn it into action.”
While Ford said he can’t control the emissions from “Big Oil” or people “cutting down the Amazon Rainforest to make beef patties,” he has been able to apply what he has learned to be the best forestry practices to transform his 16-acre property into an oasis for mammals, bees and butterflies.
“That provides comfort for your mental health. That starts reducing the stress, something that is more grounded,” he said.
At the same time, he started “studying like crazy,” absorbing everything he could about climate change.
He says that he instantly connected with Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist, after he saw her speak out for the first-time.
“I was instantly drawn to her because I’m also on the spectrum,” he said. “I start meeting all these different people that work directly with the United Nations, with the climate talks and things of this nature. And from that, I was able to draw strength to know that I’m just not in this all by myself.”
But for others in Ford’s orbit, coping with an endless cycle of fire and smoke has been too much.
‘WE COULDN’T SEE THE SUN’
The heat dome collapsed in B.C. Last June, wildfires erupted close behind it, creating their own weather systems in some cases. pyro-cumulonimbus firestorms.
The highly active thunderstorms — in many cases, seen from space — triggered a rapid succession of lightning storms across Western Canada last summer.
“It was like as if an alien spacecraft was sitting over top of your area bombarding the ground with lightning strikes,” said Ford.
Dozens of fires sprung up, some creeping close to his friend’s home, triggering an evacuation.
Ford remembers seeing his friend with his wife the day before he killed himself. And while Ford says he doesn’t know how much climate and wildfire led to his friend’s suicide, his wife later told him the endless wildfire cycle pushed him to the edge.
“Brad was really down the dumps. He had some health issues,” said Ford. “The day that I saw him, we couldn’t see the sun.”
“It was just year after year, after year after year — these fires.”
Ford said that he had lost a friend to suicide twice in the past two years. The first, an avid outdoorman, had lung problems. He also suffered from one smoky season after another.
“We talked about it openly,” he said. “He was struggling to breathe with all the smoke.”
Ford was on a lake fishing when he got the call — search and rescue found his missing friend.
Outside of his climate activism, Ford says he’s now working with counselling and men’s groups in 100 Mile House to help support people before their mental health spirals out of control.
The way he sees it, as growing wildfires and heat change British Columbian’s idea of a normal summer, fighting back despair means confronting climate change head-on.
“People are gonna have to turn around and make a decision. They’re either gonna lay down or they’re gonna fight,” said Ford.
LACK OF RESOURCES
Back in Lytton, it’s been almost nine months since fire burned up the town Jennifer Thoss used to call home.
While the former teacher had moved from the Lytton before the fire, her tenants had been left homeless after the June wildfire took their houses.
Last week, Thoss began clearing debris from her properties, making her one of the first to start the rebuilding process.
Thoss visited an old art school where she used teach and saw a pop up resilience centre with free books and a ping-pong table.
Hundreds of pamphlets, flyers, and even playing cards offering mental health tips now ring the room. Each one bears the name of one of dozens of organizations that have descended on the town — the Red Cross, the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the 1-800-SUICIDE line. On the other side of the room, a big yellow banner from a business services company proclaims “#LyttonStrong” and “We are here for you!”
“There’s a lot of depression and PTSD in the community, probably 99 per cent of the people,” said Thoss.
Last week, a controlled wildfire burn near Lytton set many families on edge, in one case reducing an eight-year-old girl from the Lytton First Nation to tears.
“She has a great fear now even though I told her it was controlled” said father Ivan Machelle in a Facebook post. “She told me in tears that she’s still scared and asked if we are safe…”
SFU’s Card says the B.C. provincial government has done little to signal it’s taking the mental health consequences of climate change seriously.
“Community resources barely have enough funding from government to do what they’re doing,” said Card. “It is something that governments haven’t woken up to.”
This year’s provincial budget, he said, prioritized emergency response to a changing climate over the human infrastructure that’s needed to support mental health.
However, mental health professionals are still unsure how to treat patients who fear a changing environment, despite being supported.
“The reality is there’s no gold standard for the treatment of climate anxiety. Most therapists and psychologists feel unequipped,” said Card. “There’s these system-level changes that need to take place. Absent those, people are left to kind of figure it out on their own.”
“Most people who need help don’t have anywhere to go.”
SURVEILLING MENTAL HEALTH IN a WARMING WORLD
Card is one of a group of scientists who received funding recently to conduct a year-long national survey on how climate and weather affect Canadians’ mental well-being.
Building on last year’s heat dome research, the longer-term study will track people’s reaction to climate change across social media.
“We are entering an era in Canada where we are monitoring and surveilling for mental health in climate change,” said Card.
On one hand, the researchers will be looking out for chronic maladaptive coping — using drugs or alcohol to wind down or escape your worries; on the other, they hope to track positive coping mechanisms, like writing to your member of Parliament, engaging in more pro-environmental behaviour, or talking with family.
It is not clear exactly what therapeutic options work. There are some studies that suggest taking action to slow the release of greenhouse gases, or prepare your community for climate change reduces a feeling of hopelessness, said SFU’s Takaro.
For some, this might be protesting the construction of new oil and gas pipelines. For others, it could be something else. A rain garden is something you can do.Installing a heatpump at home or purchasing an electric car are both more comfortable ways to combat climate change. But it’s an idea that still needs more testing, said Takaro.
Another important step people can take to protect their mental health is going into nature and exercising, a solution some medical professionals are already scaling up through Prescriptions for the outdoors.
Takaro says making small changes in your relationships can help too — finding ways to reduce energy consumption at work and Convince family and friendsDoing the same can lead to a feeling of accomplishment.
“Taking action is therapeutic,” he said.
Even the Salmon Arm ER doctor is following this advice. Nine months after a spell of suicide attempts hit her unit, Adamson now works with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, a group of doctors advocating for public health in the face of threats from climate change, pesticides and natural gas.
“You can go to work every day and pull bodies out of the water, but eventually when it becomes so bad, you realize you have to go upstream,” she said.
After a traumatic experience, not all people have a reserve of hope.
Individuals coping with mental trauma brought on by tragedy or violence have benefited from a range of therapies designed to control a patient’s emotions, from mindfulness training to cognitive behavioural therapy.
Climate change is unique because the threat of it never disappears. In other words, says Card, there’s nothing irrational about fearing climate change when the world’s best scientists say it’s going to be bad.
Feelings of helplessness are natural in the face of weaning entire governments and industries off fossil fuels, or protecting one’s home from repeated wildfires. All that can be made worse when a person struggles with poverty or systemic racism.
Card warns that for some people who feel disempowered, asking them to focus on the environment as a way to get over their climate fears is like asking them to ruminate on the source of their anxiety.
There are still some options to combat climate distress, even though the science is not yet in. Card stated that it is important to find community, meaningful conversation, and purpose in life.
It’s natural to feel weak in the face of the transformational changes required of industry and government to reduce global emissions.
As a marine biologist and climate expert Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson recommends, don’t try to fix all the world’s climate problems. Discover what’s needed, what you do well and what brings you joy. Find out what ticks these boxes Three boxesDirect that energy towards positive change.
Collectively, however, “those things will have an impact regardless,” said Card.
Help is available if you or someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts. Call 1-800-784-2433. Visit www.crisiscentrechat.ca.