Climate change is the subject of a conversation that’s happening in every sphere of society. There have been high-profile instances of extreme weather across the country this year, from flooding in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, to intense wildfires in Alberta and British Columbia.
It’s against that backdrop that Korol and other experts say they’re seeing an increase in related mental-health issues.
“It can be anything from depression to increasing anxiety disorders,” said the psychologist at the Vancouver Anxiety Centre, who’s also a professor at the University of British Columbia. “It can be post-traumatic stress disorder. Or, for those with obsessions or compulsions, they can take a turn obsessing about recycling or not burning fossil fuels.”
How bad can the manifestations of the anxiety get?
“It can be suicide,” she said. Those most at risk for suicide or suicidal ideation are often already depressed or anxious. Korol said that any extreme worry that causes a pervasive sense of hopelessness can lead to suicidal ideation for some.
Around the world, mental-health researchers have been documenting what people feel when the world they’ve known changes gradually — or suddenly — from climate change. There are several names for it, such as environmental grief, eco grief or even climate anxiety.
House of Commons committees have discussed it. Health Canada includes social and mental stress as effects of climate change.
Meanwhile, as B.C. braces for another wildfire season, the provincial government released a new Wildfire Preparedness Guide last week, which prioritizes psychological care to cope with wildfire stress.
Korol explained that even smoke and particulate matter have mental health effects: not only can it make people feel depressed, but it is a “visible reminder” of what is changing.
“Anytime you have any kind of change, it can lead to grief. Trying to accept a new reality with the changing climate could lead people to feel sad in ways they hadn’t felt before,” Korol said.
“What we are seeing is scary, and what we imagine might be coming is even scarier.”
The environment is also now a top-ranking concern for Canadian voters ahead of the federal election this fall, according to a new Forum Research poll. Forum president Lorne Bozinoff said that suggests voters are paying more attention to the political debate on climate change and to extreme weather events.
Indeed, Korol said many of her clients have walked through the door due to family strife caused by polarized political debates about climate change.
“Families are arguing about this,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons people feel so hopeless.”
Some of the dire mental health impacts can lead to substance abuse disorders, according to an article in the May edition of B.C. Medical Journal.
The article pointed to the wildfires — exacerbated by changing weather patterns and temperature increases — resulting in poor air quality, displacement, housing insecurity, food and water insecurity, social isolation and affecting employment opportunities. In both the 2017 and 2018 wildfire season, B.C. firefighters faced record levels of burnout and exhaustion.
During days with heavy smoke, seniors and those with any respiratory issues, such as asthma, were asked to stay indoors.
“Despite growing appreciation of the mental-health effects associated with climate change, measuring these effects has proven to be particularly challenging due to the problems of causation and attribution,” wrote Elizabeth Wiley, article author and physician.
Wiley cited studies of similar experiences in Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016 after wildfires forced a total evacuation of roughly 90,000 people, which suggest that psychosocial impacts were widespread and likely to persist.
One study, last year, found those residents who fled for their lives were still experiencing elevated rates of depression and mental-health problems.
Older adults, children, those with pre-existing conditions or of lower socioeconomic status “may be” more vulnerable during emergencies, Wiley noted. Health-care providers and first responders are often among those first affected.
In 2017, the American Psychological Association released a lengthy report on the subject, which noted mental-health impacts for people who have survived intense fires or floods, as well as those who study and communicate about climate change. The report also acknowledged the role therapists have in speaking up about community needs as extreme weather is expected to continue.
With her clients, Korol works on coping mechanisms. These can range from ensuring clients have a survival kit, such as storing reserves of clean water, getting involved in advocacy work or taking part in community initiatives. The goal is to help people learn how to face the reality of the situation without panicking.
And that comes from taking action.
“People need to feel like they’re doing something to mitigate the changes instead of feeling powerless and hopeless,” she said.
“When we go through abrupt changes like this, it pushes us to evolve in ways we wouldn’t have without the stress. … In a way, these hard lessons are gifts in a dirty paper bag.”
With files from Alex Ballingall and The Canadian Press
Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based reporter covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @mdgmedia