Environmental changes to places that we love and the impact on mental health

Solastalgia

Solastalgia can be thought of a type of ‘homesickness’ that is experienced by people who have experienced a major change, and possibly the destruction of, their environment or place. People can experience grief, loss and anxiety and depression directly related to the degradation of their home or or place. It is important to recognise how people are connected to their surrounding and particularly attuned to their home, community, environment and to nature generally.  When you space and place in the world is changed beyond your control – it is unsettling. Recognising the distress that is caused early and providing timely support is important because in doing so appropriate responses and health care interventions can be put in place for individuals, groups and whole communities.

Our mental health is linked to the environment and where we live

There are a range of commentators about this topic in recent times (some are listed at the end of this blog). Some are listed below, in particular, Professor Glenn Albrecht has been instrumental in identifying the key issues in NSW. His TED Talk video here is useful for those that want to know a little more about Solastalgia, but also about Solaphilia – the opposite of Solastalgia. Solaphilia is a concept that highlights the innate sense that people have to love or appreciate their place, or environment, that is, our place as people in the natural environment. Albrecht (in his video) says that to some extent our appreciation of nature or our love for our surrounding is vital and is a buffer for solastaglia. Basically if we look after our place and environment, it is good for our mental health! But when we start to compromise the environment, we also (perhaps unintentionally), make people more vulnerable to mental heath problems such as depression. Our mental health and our place in the environment are intrinsically linked.

People have a natural attraction and appreciation of nature . This capacity to reason and understand the environment has safety implications. For example, people are don’t usually enjoy environmental factors that are threatening or that represent danger. People don’t usually enjoy a climate that is too hot or too cold. If we avoid environmental or climatic hazards – we lie longer and happier lives! 

Biophillia – our relationship with nature

Kellert (a biologist) wrote an interesting book about people and places (see below for the reference) and about how we interact with nature. He says that people are drawn to form emotional bonds and attachment with the natural environment and this impacts on a sense of mental health and well-being, so much so, that people experience the desire to control the environment, or as Kellert (2012) describes it, to have dominion over the natural environment. People experience a sense of connection, meaning and purpose related to their experiences of the natural environment that provides a sense of spiritual connection to the world beyond one’s self.

Kellert (2012) suggests that the human affinity for the natural environment is so strong that it is symbolically represented in images, language and designs and that this too enhances a sense of well-being for people. These core biophillic values help us to understand mental health and well-being of rural people with emergent mental health problems from a unique perspective, and to better understand the complex context in which mental health decline occurs for them.

Rural adversity

The dynamics of rural communities are changeable and respond to impacts such as environmental changes (for example, drought, flood, salinity, and/or climate change), mining operations and workforce dynamics, downturns in commodity prices, financial pressures with the lowering of land values and loss of productivity, export demands, fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workforce, population declines and the related fragmentation of social networks, farm amalgamations and corporatisations, as well as the limited availability of educational and employment opportunities for rural people (Some authors  have written more about this…. eg Speldewinde).

Environmental examples were Solastalgia can develop in rural communities:

Salinity and rising water tables

The insidious impacts of dryland salinity, that is, the rise of a salty ground water table, is increased as deep-rooted trees are cleared from agricultural areas to make way for productive agricultural landscapes that include shallow-rooted cropping. Farming practices and environmental management are also threatened by a long-term downturn in commodity prices and other environmental impacts such as drought. Thus, the economic impacts are also significant, and when combined with the creeping effects of salinity, are recognised as a vulnerability for mental health decline of residents because psychological distress is frequently associated with people’s sense of place, while their relationships and lived experiences influence their psychological quality of life. Some studies have shown links between depression and salinity increases.

Coal seam and open cut mining

In NSW, open cut and coal seam gas mining have grown in prominence and residents of communities where mining occurs have had to adapt to this change. Some communities have struggled to find a balance between environment, people and mining. Albrecht says that the competing battles are between Solastalgia and one end of the spectrum and Solaphilia at the other end, thus the conflict is between environmental impacts on people and their need to maintain a connection with place that is protective of mental health generally. Albrecht an his colleagues have conducted soem research that has explored how mining in the Hunter region has impacted people and their emotional health, and he has been able to explain some of the profound discomforts that impact people in that region – for example, the loss of landscape and the scarred horizons can be very debilitating to some people with some people avoiding travel in the region to help them minimise their distress and discomfort at the sight of an altered landscape, despite the geography being part of their cultural place. 

Floods

South West Queensland and Northern NSW experienced have experienced some significant flooding in recent years. Communities established in floodplains for the ease of access to water (historically) are particularly at risk of flood events. Moree, NSW is an example, where flood events can see the main street and many dwelling inundated with flood waters. Despite the risks, local people are connected to their place, and how it looks and feels. Moree Plains Shire Council have just conducted a Floodplain Management Program and have identified houses that will need to be lifted to avoid floor flooding in the future. Even changes such as the retro- raising of house heights will change the street scape of a country town to some extent. On the one hand there is assistance, support and planning underway to to help the community, on the other hand people will experience change in regard to their environment and place… the environmental and human emotional conflict is challenging to balance and reconcile.

Drought

There are many stories of drought and the changes to landscape. Drought and depression are well recognised in tandem. However the length of drought and the grief and loss that is associated with drought can be further complicated when ideas about solastalgia are considered.

Volcanos

In Indonesia a recent study has shown by Warsini, West, Mills and Usher, links between depression, anxiety and the loss of place and home to people who have had volcano eruptions destroy their homes and livelihoods. While the geography still exists – some people are profoundly sad and distressed at the loss of their homes and places. Their connections with the place has been disrupted and that can be described as an experience of solastalgia – homesick for the past place that is gone forever, yet still being in the same geographic location.

 Keeping strong and resilient

Remember that early recognition of any mental health or emotional decline is important. The earlier problems are recognised the sooner and more successfully mental health help can be implemented.

Environmentally, we know that from time to time the unpredictable will occur. Getting through these times is challenging, however, good mental health support is an important aspect in community level recovery.

Being connected to place, environment and nature is important -people need to do that to be mentally healthy and well. Advocating for looking after the environment is important for the mental health and well being of us all. The more we can do to maintain balance in nature – the better our emotional being in the future.

More information:

Albrecht, G., Sartore, G., Connor, L., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Kelly, B., . . . Pollard, G. (2007). Solastalgia: The distress caused by environmental change. Australasian Psychiatry, 15, S95-S98.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257458715_Rural_and_Regional_Mental_Health?ev=prf_pub

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264636089_The_Psychosocial_Impact_of_Natural_Disasters_among_Adult_Survivors_An_Integrative_Review

Kellert, S. (2012). Birthright. People and nature in the modern world., Yale University Press.

Speldewinde, P. C., A. Cook, P. Davies and P. Weinstein (2009). “A relationship between environmnetal degradation and mental health in rural Western Australia.” Health & Place 15: 880-887.

Stokols, D., R. P. Lejano and J. Hipp (2013). “Enhancing the resilience of human-environment systems: A social ecological perspective.” Ecology and Society 18(1): 7.

Walker, B., C. S. Holling, S. R. Carptenter and A. Kinzig (2004). “Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems.” Ecology and Society 9(2).

 

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