By Richard Yin
Solastagia is what happens when you remain within the same locality, but that sense of “home”, that sense of place, is lost through the destruction of the landscape. (Supplied: Rachael Webster)
Place is important to all of us. It speaks to our identity, our community, our mortality and our destiny argues, social researcher and author Hugh Mackay.
American writer Rebecca Solnit describes it as “the sixth sense, an internal compass and map, made by memory and spatial perception, together”.
In 2004, in response to the changing landscape of the Upper Hunter Valley from open-cut coal mining, power station pollution and prolonged drought, Glenn Albrecht, an ecological philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University, went on to describe an unrecognised form of psychological distress in residents that he called solastalgia.
The word has its origins in the word “nostalgia” and is defined as “the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment”.
While in nostalgia that pain relates to leaving one’s home, in a sense solastagia is what happens when you remain within the same locality, but that sense of “home”, that sense of place, is lost through the destruction of the landscape; “it is the homesickness you have when you are still at home”.
Symptoms included feelings of grief, trauma, nostalgia, alienation, depression, anxiety and loss.
While we tend to focus on the tangible losses of weather events, the intangible impacts — the psychological distress and grief underlying the loss of sense of place — can be profound and long-term. (ABC Open contributor Rod Evans)
The word has also entered the public arena with the likes of Australian pop artist Missy Higgins, using it to name her recent new album.
Since the early writings of Dr Albrecht, we have had an increasing number of publications that speak to the psychological impacts of a rapidly changing world.
As Dr Albrecht wrote in 2012, the built and natural environments are now changing so rapidly that our language and conceptual frameworks have to work overtime just to keep up. Some of these regional impacts relate to war, terrorism, gas fracking, mining, agribusiness.
But of particular concern are the interwoven impacts of globalisation, population growth and climate change with the disruption to climatic and ecological systems. As the earth warms, so more frequently are local environments destroyed through extreme weather events.
What happens when we lose our inner compass
Despair is one side of the coin, but the other is the acknowledgement of the value and strength to be had when we connect to place and community. (ABC News: Alison Branley)
So what happens when that sense of place is lost or destroyed, when we lose our compass and map?
While we tend to focus on the tangible losses, the intangible impacts from floods, wildfires and droughts due to psychological distress and the grief underlying the loss of sense of place can be profound and often long-term.
Research in the Latrobe Valley following the Black Saturday fires highlight the complexity of emotions in the context of acute loss. Following the fire and escaping from temporary accommodation and rebuilding a new home, one resident aged in his 40s writes:
“But it’s sterile, it’s still sterile now. The worst thing about — I don’t know, everyday it’s a different worse thing, but one of the most difficult things about losing everything in a fire, and I guess people lose to house fires all the time, but it totally changed everything about our place, not just the inside, not just the house, not just our stuff, but all our history. Basically it just wiped us, for the last 14 years, off the planet.”
But some impacts such as those in relation to drought or greater climatic uncertainty, are more akin to chronic stressors, a natural disaster occurring over a longer time. Recent research findings within the wheatbelt community of Newdegate south-east of Perth, reveal that changes in climatic patterns have compounded farmers’ worries about the weather, undermined notions of identity, and contributed to cumulative and ongoing forms of place-based distress. And accompanying this has been a heightened perceived risk of depression and suicide.
‘All farmers are good farmers’
Not surprisingly the study has highlighted the intimacy of relationship between ecosystem health and human health.
Participants’ anxieties over the weather were linked to the health of their land. For example, chronically dry conditions can exacerbate the risk of wind erosion (lifting or blowing soil). Wind erosion was perceived emotively by the participants, with many describing it as “horrible”, “terrible”, “heart-wrenching” and “depressing”.
A farmer, who also worked as a nurse at the local hospital, provided an example of the distress caused by wind erosion.
“Years ago we had a really bad dust storm. Had a guy come in for an X-ray at the hospital and he was stressed out of his mind — and it was just the wind, it really bothered him. Farmers just hate seeing their farm lift; it somehow says to them, ‘I’m a bad farmer’. And I think all farmers are good farmers. They all try their hardest to be. They all love their land.”
Identity linked to knowledge of the land
For those with a close relationship to the land, their identity is linked to not only its physical features but uses and knowledge of it. The loss of local knowledge, or traditional ecological knowledge, may be a key trigger for ecological grief.
Some Australian farming groups have reported having lost confidence in the seasonal rhythms of the weather and in their ability to know it. Often the loss of confidence is associated with anxieties about their long-term future.
Prolonged drought can adversely affect Aboriginal communities whose identity is intimately linked to their connection and caring of the land.
Aboriginal participants in a study on how prolonged drought in rural NSW had affected their social and emotional wellbeing reported concern that traditional men’s roles were threatened by drought-related loss of habitat and wildlife and its impact on seasonal work. This compounded existing socio-economic disadvantages and existing vulnerabilities.
Children represent a uniquely vulnerable group and currently those under the age of five carry 88 per cent of the burden of disease from climate change impacts. (ABC North West Queensland: Harriet Tatham)
Children carry burden of climate change
More recently there has been a focus on the mental health impacts of climate change on children.
Children represent a uniquely vulnerable group and currently those under the age of five carry 88 per cent of the burden of disease from climate change impacts.
Direct psychological impacts caused primarily through extreme weather events are easy to appreciate and can be understood to potentially predispose to adverse future adult mental health outcomes.
But there is a growing body of research for an indirect mental health impact, showing that older children and youths in both developing and developed countries have a higher level of interest and concern about climate change than adults.
Surveys show that many young people express worry, fear and anxiety about its impact on future lives and believe that the world may end in their lifetime because of climate change and other global threats.
Meaning-focussed psychological interventions were cited as being important in promoting wellbeing and environmental engagement.
Our one home is under threat
In 2017, the American Psychological Association published a report, Mental Health and our Changing Climate: impacts, implications and guidance, that sought to draw attention to the diverse psychological impacts of climate change. Furthermore, the report provided recommendations to support individual and community resilience.
In the context of climate change, most work around adaptation has focussed on technological solutions and infrastructural solutions, but there requires an acknowledgement of the psychological impacts and a focus also on the “adaptive capacity” of individuals and communities and how this may be supported.
How do we put a value on the land, ecosystems and species as objects that contribute to mental health and wellbeing, community flourishing, and culture?
For Dr Albrecht, while acknowledging the negative impacts of environmental transformation within local and regional communities, his greater concern was for the bigger picture, this one Earth, our one home, under threat by an increasingly hostile climate due to man-made climate change.
For him, the despair was one side of the coin, the other was the acknowledgement of the value and strength to be had when we connected to place and community.
From the strength founded on this sense of place was our capacity to move beyond despair and to respond with head and heart to the destruction happening around us.
Dr Richard Yin is a Perth GP and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.