Coping with Eco-Grief in the Anthropocene: Indigenous Perspectives

By Lili Weir

The climate crisis is starting to affect people both physically and mentally. And according to a recent study, these effects often affect indigenous people more.

Some on the Colorado College campus are suggesting indigenous practices could be a model for how to best deal with the mental health aspects of a changing climate. 

“Indigenous knowledge is among our most valuable resources” in building community and coping emotionally, Colorado College political anthropologist and ethnographer Sarah Hautzinger said.

Some effective coping strategies involve acknowledging shared emotional experiences in order to develop a stronger “psychological resilience” to modern climate change according to a report by American Psychological Association. Indigenous ceremonial practices often provide a platform for these critical bonding events to occur.

The short term trauma and post traumatic stress disorder created by climate disasters is one example of mental health concerns brought about by the climate crisis based on a 2017 report by American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica. Long term “worry” about climate causes stress that can lead to a physical reaction such as a weakened immune system and other mental health problems including substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression.

Indigenous communities often experience disproportionate mental health burdens. In a study about Innuit people, of the Innuit Nunangat region in Canada, tribe members reported feeling hopeless and disconnected due to the reduced access to cultural and ceremonial sites because of melting sea ice, researchers Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo said in their study “Hope and Mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding Ecological Grief.”

The current ecological extinction is equivalent to “inheriting a world without half my family” said Casmali Lopez, a first year student at Colorado College and member of the Chumash nation. Lopez described the way his culture is intertwined with the land and animals and how the ecosystem relies on the Chumash people. This interconnected relationship is a strong as a family unit.

“We can no longer cling to the familiar” when responding to climate change, Lopez said. Western society should learn from indigenous populations who have already been through a mass extinction in facing a situation as grave and immediate as the climate crisis, Lopez said.

One way to achieve this is to “find programming” that “supports human wellness” and “resiliency in general,” Cunsolo said in a PRI interview

Often “creating a physical space” for groups to mourn together in ceremony serves this purpose, and can lead to emotional healing and increased resilience to climate uncertainties, Lopez said. 

The “authentic relationships between people” created in ceremonial grieving spaces is one way to cope, and giving people this space can help in creating a “social movement and collective response” to the climate crisis, Hautzinger said.

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