Edmonton local weather activists use their ‘eco-grief’ as a device for constructing communities

Climate activists around Edmonton have been grappling with declining mental health as they mourn what has been lost to natural disasters and a changing climate — and for some, channeling grief into community action is a healthy outlet.

Dubbed eco-grief, the psychological experience is known as a pang of loss that can happen in response to ecological threats and climate change.

Demand for eco-therapy and community circles where people can grieve together has gone up over the years, according to Sam Kriviak, an Edmonton-based psychologist at Summit Counseling Services.

“We’re at the point in the climate crisis that it’s not this niche concern,” they said.

Kriviak added that about half of their patients are combating some form of eco-grief.

Eco-therapy is only getting more common as the climate crisis goes on, according to Sam Kriviak, a psychologist at Summit Counseling in Edmonton. (Submitted by Sam Kriviak)

Symptoms can vary from a debilitating paralysis or post-traumatic stress disorder, to milder concerns about whether future generations will have enough natural resources to survive, Kriviak said.

“Seeing all of the negative news and having that sense of grief can really kick start something inside of you,” said Sabrina Huot, a community leader with the environmental group Alberta Emerald Foundation.

“It can either completely leave you hopeless and not wanting to do anything. But on the other side of things, it can push you towards action and I think that’s what it’s always done for me.”

After reading about the evolution of global warming in a 2017 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Huot said it was hard for her to get out of bed.

The report showed that global warming was on track to climb 1.5 C between 2030 and 2052, compared with levels from the pre-industrial era.

“I was so overwhelmed with these feelings of despair and hopelessness and anxiety,” she said.

“I think what helped me at that time was the community part of it — getting together with people who were feeling the same way.”

By connecting with fellow activists through the Sustainability Leadership Council at MacEwan University, Huot said she shifted her debilitating anxieties into meaningful actions.

Now, Huot said she stays hopeful by seeing a psychologist for her eco-grief, and taking on a job where she gets to interview community members about environmental issues for Albertans.

‘Action is the antidote to despair’

Edmonton Climate Hub members Beth and Michael Hunter chose to have a baby in 2010 — when the IPCC predicted a global warming uptick of 1.5 C wouldn’t come until the next century.

Whenever they turn on the news or read about climate change forecasts, the couple says they worry about the environmental state 11-year-old Diana will be left with beyond their lifespans.

Beth said the Hunter household mantra has always been, “Action is the antidote to despair.”

From left to right, Beth, Diana and Michael Hunter spend time in nature as a family, but they say they’re worried about how much longer they’ll be able to share these memories. (Submitted by Beth Hunter)

By volunteering with local environmental groups and supporting Green Party campaigns across the province, Beth said she hopes the Hunter family can be part of the solution.

“Climate change doesn’t necessarily have a sensational story every day, but everybody needs to continue to be motivated,” Michael said.

A normal reaction to a global crisis

Feeling overwhelmed and saddened by ecological losses is only normal, according to Holli-Anne Passmore, an assistant psychology professor at Concordia University of Edmonton.

“It’s actually a pretty healthy, practical kind of an anxiety or reaction,” she said.

“We are in the middle of a very looming and growing environmental crisis and loss of biodiversity crisis.”

Edmonton psychology professor Holli-Anne Passmore says eco-grief is a normal reaction to an environmental crisis. (Submitted by Holli-Anne Passmore)

Under the eco-anxiety umbrella, Passmore said eco-grief tends to manifest itself as sadness or depression rather than urgent stress.

To find hope amid eco-grief, Passmore said that celebrating nature and spending time outdoors can be more productive than advocating against environmental crises — something that revolves around our ecosystem’s peril.

For eco-grief circle member Dale Ladouceur, enjoying nature and finding communities where she can share her environmental concerns is a priority.

Ladouceur said she gets emotionally burned out when thinking about how much work it would take to combat the climate crisis alone.

“You cannot take the weight of the world on your shoulders. You are not alone when it comes to being concerned about our lovely planet,” she said.

“There is strength in numbers.”

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