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Understanding Ecological Grief: A Functional Response or a Mental Health Risk?

As climate change continues to shape our world, many of us are starting to feel its emotional toll. One emerging response to these changes is known as ecological grief. But what is ecological grief? Is it a sign of a looming mental health crisis, or could it be a natural, functional response to a changing environment?


What is Ecological Grief?

Ecological grief refers to the mourning and emotional distress we experience in response to the loss of ecosystems, landscapes, species, and ways of life due to environmental change. As people witness the degradation of their natural surroundings, they may feel sadness, helplessness, and even despair. This grief can be particularly intense for those who have a close relationship with the natural world, such as farmers, mountaineers, or Indigenous communities.


Old Man on Mountain
Man on Mountain

A Case of Ecological Grief

Consider Albert, a 50-year-old mountaineer in the Alps. Albert's favorite glacier is melting, and he feels a deep sense of loss. The diminishing ice field feels like a part of himself is disappearing. He describes the glacier's retreat as leaving the mountain "naked and ugly." Albert experiences intense sadness, guilt over past non-environmentally friendly actions, and anxiety about the future. His grief is profound, affecting his sense of identity and purpose.


Differentiating Ecological Grief from Related Concepts

Several terms describe the emotional impacts of climate change, including solastalgia and eco-anxiety:

  • Solastalgia: This term refers to the distress caused by environmental changes that make a once-familiar place feel strange and alien. It's like feeling homesick while still being at home.

  • Eco-anxiety: This is a response to anticipated environmental threats, characterized by feelings of helplessness and worry about the future.

While solastalgia and eco-anxiety focus on current changes and future threats, ecological grief often centers on the loss itself and the longing for what has already been lost.


Ecological Grief and Mental Health

Grieving for the environment can have serious mental health implications. Like other forms of grief, ecological grief can lead to withdrawal, depression, and anxiety. For some, the experience can be overwhelming, leading to symptoms similar to those found in prolonged grief disorder (PGD). Factors such as the intensity of one's relationship with the environment, cultural values, and personal circumstances can influence how deeply someone feels this grief.


Mental Health Risks

Ecological grief may amplify mental health risks by:

  • Exacerbating existing stressors: Compounded by other challenges like economic hardship or health issues.

  • Leading to social withdrawal: Reduced social support can worsen feelings of isolation and distress.

  • Triggering trauma: Especially in cases where environmental changes result from extreme events like wildfires or floods.


A Functional Response

However, ecological grief isn't solely a negative experience. It can also serve as a functional response, motivating positive environmental behaviors. The pain and loss felt can drive individuals to take action, fostering a sense of purpose in protecting and restoring the environment.


What is your level of Ecological Grief?

  • None

  • Low

  • Medium

  • High



Research and Future Directions

Despite its growing recognition, empirical research on ecological grief is limited. Future research should aim to:

  • Develop tools to measure ecological grief.

  • Explore the links between ecological grief and mental health.

  • Investigate the impact of different types of ecological losses.

  • Develop strategies to support those experiencing ecological grief.


Conclusion

As climate change continues to reshape our world, ecological grief will likely become a more common experience. Understanding this grief is crucial for supporting mental health and promoting adaptive behaviors that can help mitigate the environmental crisis. Whether viewed as a mental health risk or a functional response, ecological grief is a natural reaction to the profound changes in our environment, reflecting our deep connection to the natural world.


 

This article was summarized from the National Library of Medicine Article:


Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jan; 18(2): 734. Published online 2021 Jan 16. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18020734


PMCID: PMC7830022PMID: 33467018


Ecological Grief as a Response to Environmental Change: A Mental Health Risk or Functional Response?


Hannah Comtesse,1 Verena Ertl,1 Sophie M. C. Hengst,2 Rita Rosner,1 and Geert E. Smid2,3,*


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