Why we should think about the relationship between climate change and mental health in Scotland – Professor Hester Parr

A review by member Croy Thomson of the talk on the 7th February 2024

Hester Parr: The relationship between climate change and mental health in Scotland                

Ignoring the impulse to imitate Private Fraser in Dad’s Army, and shout, “We’re doomed!” I stuck with Professor Parr’s measured, illuminating outlining of climate change and its impacts on our planet and its inhabitants.

Amongst the extensive collateral damage caused by climate change are human emotions and emotional responses. Now groundbreaking research is going into relationships between place and mental health. Since climate change negatively affects environmental, social and economic aspects of life, via hurricanes, floods, wildfires, food security, drought, famine, conflict, migration … so you won’t be surprised to learn that effects on individuals can include stress, feelings of helplessness, depression, grief and alcohol and substance abuse.

Effects go extra large. Early in the talk we faced the question, “Will Australia be the first continent to be evacuated, because it will become uninhabitable?” Thankfully, not for a few hundred years. Phew.

We encountered the expressions, “ecological grief”, “global dread”, “eco-paralysis”, “ecophobia” and “solastalgia”, this last one meaning a kind of emotional distress triggered by natural disasters or climate change; a hurtful nostalgia for the vanishing solace of once-familiar surroundings, if you will.

As for Scotland, well, as you may have noticed, ours is a cold, dark, wet country (fond laughter greeted Professor Parr’s description of the West of Scotland as “gloomy”). It’s predicted that summers here may become drier and hotter, but winters could be even wetter. If climate change leads to less light, then we’ll endure more Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression most severe in autumn and winter, brought about by a lack of sunlight.

I’m tempted to say if you enjoy the Book of Revelations, this is the lecture for you, but hang in there. Hope lies in the fact that here we are discussing the matter and becoming more informed. Professionally led studies are under way on how to cope. Example: the Inuit people of northern Canada are witnessing immense changes to their climate, but they don’t try to resolve the grief they feel: they use it as motivation to protect the environment. A science of “ecotherapeutics” is developing, with “ecotherapists” trying to help people affected by climate change.

Best of all, as Professor Parr pointed out, the students attending the university outside the building are aware of climate change and are increasingly motivated to do something about it. I was motivated to cross my fingers. This was more than a lecture: it felt like a timely warning from the future.

The Professor’s delivery was well-paced, and clear, though I felt her visuals were often too wordy to take in quickly: the main message, however, was delivered with aplomb. Scotland may not be doomed just yet, as long as collectively we learn, adapt and, “think beyond fear”.

I’m glad to report that the Q&A session was appropriately fearless. Is our Age of Anxiety any different from previous, similar Ages, such as the 1960s dread of nuclear Armageddon? Is it possible to futureproof Scotland or can we make do by installing sunlamps at every bus stop? Can we achieve a just transition to greener industries, on behalf of those losing their jobs in older industries?

Is it fruitless to address the mental health of individuals when one person makes no difference?  

Hester Parr is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Glasgow and an award-winning Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Academy of Social Science. She recommends you watch the online movie Lament for the Land, and Glenn A Albrecht’s book, Earth Emotions. The talk is available now online.

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