April 22, 2021

Eco-grief: How to cope with the emotional impacts of climate change

Mental health another side-effect of environmental degradation

With Earth Day returning April 22, many people may find themselves more aware of a form of grief related to worries about the state of the world’s environment.

Known as ecological grief or “eco-grief,” these strong feelings can have a negative impact on mental health, especially when current events such as a global pandemic or a natural disaster occur. In fact, a two-part UFlourish event recently raised awareness of how sustainability and mental health can intersect, specifically addressing feelings of ecological grief.

Led by environmental scientist Amy Spark, BSc’14, and UCalgary’s Office of Sustainability, and with UFlourish itself an initiative under the university’s Campus Mental Health Strategy, the event focused on eco-grief and provided resources for those impacted and additional networks to find support. 

Eco-grief defined

Facing the realities of forest fires, extreme weather events, pollution and other forms of environmental degradation on top of a global pandemic can be a daunting task.

“It’s easy to feel totally overwhelmed. Maybe a bit helpless, powerless, angry, on fire, numb, disconnected. Perhaps all the above,” said internationally noted climate psychologist, Dr. Renée Lertzman, PhD, in her 2019 TED Talk, How to Turn Climate Anxiety into Action, which was shown during the UFlourish event. However, Lertzman said it is normal to not feel 100 per cent because “these messy and complicated feelings make total sense.”

Eco-grief has similarities to other forms of grief, says Spark, sustainability co-ordinator at Bow Valley College and a member of Refugia Retreats, a collective that creates spaces for people to explore the psychological impacts of community change.

For example, like other forms of grief, people experiencing ecological grief may feel physical and physiological responses to the loss or experience shifts in their worldview. Recognizing and dealing with these emotions is important.

To cope with these feelings, Spark recommends the following tools and resources: 

Ways to cope with eco-grief

  1. Connection to community
    • Validation that you are not alone in experiencing these complex emotions can be beneficial. There are many eco-grief circles that organize over Facebook. You can email info@refugiaretreats.com if you need help finding one.
    • Spark points to several local and online support groups. The Calgary Eco-grief Support Circle is a Facebook group that aims to provide mutual support and a way to grieve with others. Join the group by submitting a request through its page. The Calgary-based Good Grief program focuses on connecting with nature to cope with other forms of grief. The similarly named Good Grief Network is a non-profit organization that provides social and emotional support in the face of climate change and offers a series of digital meetings, online courses and other resources.
    • For UCalgary students looking to find like-minded peers, consider joining a student club like the University of Calgary Eco Club and Sustainable Development Goals Alliance. UCalgary community members can also consider volunteering with the Office of Sustainability.
  2. Practice lament
    • Lament is an expression of sorrow or grief. Lament rituals are extremely old and very human methods for healing. Lament rituals include writing, photography, singing, and visual arts. It’s a way of capturing your emotions as they flow through you.
    • An online community, Work That Reconnects Network, has published resources to honour and cope with psychological pain that include prompts through art therapy and creative writing to cope with eco-grief. Spark also points to resilience.org’s webpage, Practices for Eco-Grief, that details other tools and practices such as breath work.
  3. Focus on what you can control
    • Action can inspire a sense of hope and help us feel less helpless. Find something you feel comfortable acting upon. This could be sending a monthly donation to a climate action group, writing a letter to your MLA, or signing a petition. Finding ways to support your local community through volunteering for a community garden not only can provide an additional support network, but also helps build identity, both of which are known protective factors in mental well-being. All of these actions count and may relieve feelings of helplessness.
  4. Find solace in natural spaces
    • Mental health restoration through natural environments has been an area of study for environmental psychologists. Studies have shown that tending to an outdoor garden or taking a walk in a natural environment can have positive impacts on well-being. 

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. UCalgary aims to be a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in its academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices, and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability.

For information on resources available on campus, check out UCalgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy’s Get Support web page. The strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of the university family. UCalgary’s vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential.