Supporting Inuit wellness, strengths, resilience and cultural continuity in Nunatsiavut, Labrador

The 2020 study entitled ‘“We’re people of the snow:” Weather, climate change, and Inuit mental wellness’ documents the effects recently experienced climate changes such as shorter winters and faster spring-thaw are having on Inuit mental wellness through a series of semi-structured, in-depth, Inuit-led interviews conducted by Inuit in each of the study communities and supported by the Department of Health and Social Development. The study is part of and draws from previous information gathered by the Inuit Mental Health and Adaptation to Climate Change (IMHACC) study – a multi-year case study (2013-2018) comprised of various articles. This particular study partnered with the communities of Nain, Hopedale, Postville, Makkovik, and Rigolet in the Nunatsiavut Land Claim Area which extends along much of the eastern coast of Labrador. The area is remote and so relies on seasonal ice roads and boat travel. Furthermore, personal identities as well as livelihoods in the area are often intimately bound to the land. Consequently, changes to the environment have been shown to have a notable effect on mental health. Researchers conclude with a series of recommendations which may work to support the communities of the Land Claim Area to access services, “rearticulate and reclaim place-based identities and ways of knowing”.

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Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The 2020 study ‘ “We’re people of the snow”: Weather, climate change, and Inuit mental Wellness’, conducted by Inuit and non-Inuit researchers from various academic institutions across Canada has explored the intersection of climate change and mental health in Nunatsiavut. This study builds from research conducted through the IMHACC, and analyzes semi-structured, in-depth interviews conducted with over 100 community members and local healthcare professionals. The interviews were Inuit-led and spanned five communities in the Nunatsiavut Land Claim Area. The organization of transcripts was facilitated by NVivo© software. Information from the interviews was then sorted and codified thematically through an iterative process involving many team members. Themes identified by this analysis broadly displayed that seasonal freeze-thaw cycles as well as climatic changes and unpredictable weather patterns are negatively affecting the mental health of those in the Nunatsiavut Land Claim Area. Other studies in the IMHACC such as ‘The land enriches the soul: On climatic and environmental change, affect, and emotional health and well-being in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada’ echo this finding within the context of individual locations. The research also identifies concerns related to community resilience should extreme weather events intensify and become more frequent (as is projected). The study has helped to clarify weather’s role “in both fostering and interrupting connection to place” in the context of climate change.

Identifying Actions

The 2020 study – “We’re people of the snow:” Weather, climate change, and Inuit mental wellness – utilized a constant comparative method to better clarify themes as well as approaching thematic organization of information both inductively and deductively. The flexibility that these approaches allowed may have also contributed to the general nature of actions identified. Actions identified include “addressing healthcare provider staffing needs during these periods [of need]; promoting climate literacy such as identifying and communicating climate-specific exposures; [introducing] programming and policy that facilitates social connection, connection to culture, and that provides opportunities for self-determination”. The interview data was collected over multiple years (2015-2018) by the IMHACC project. This study deliberately selected for a wide range of respondents across age, gender and communities. Researchers found that a major limitation of the study was that (in most cases) interviewees were only heard from at a single point in time and so the time of the season at which interviews were conducted may bias their response. Researchers also identify that future studies could benefit from a focused lens which attempts to understand how meteorological changes affect various subsets of the Nunatsiavut population. Previous research within the IMHACC, an article entitled ‘Protective factors for mental health and well-being in a changing climate: Perspectives from Inuit youth in Nunatsiavut, Labrador’ has begun this work by considering these effects on Inuit youth ages 15-25.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Outcomes of this particular study displayed that weather impacted mental wellness in three different ways: by shaping daily lived experiences, altering mood and emotion, and seasonally influencing community health and well-being (through effects on seasonal activities, for instance). Previous research as part of the Inuit Mental Health Adaptation to Climate Change project set the baseline for research on climate change and mental health in the North. This case study indicated that climate change impacts Inuit mental health through complex and interconnected ways: strong emotional responses (sadness, anger, frustration, stress, distress); psychosocial responses (anxiety, depression); ecological grief and loss; increased drug and alcohol usage; increased family stress; anticipatory anxiety and sadness; and the amplification of already-present traumas. It is worth noting that the Nunatsiavut Inuit have already taken actions to increase their adaptive capacity such as through environmental health monitoring. Continued monitoring may not be done directly by the authors of this study, however, researchers did highlight the importance of providing “meaningful opportunities for affected peoples to discuss and define these intangible losses and damages [due to climate change], and incorporate these concepts into monitoring, evaluation, and adaptation strategies”.

Next Steps

The next steps of this case study are made evident by the 2020 article – “We’re people of the snow:” Weather, climate change, and Inuit mental wellness. The article provides a succinct, although general list of recommendations. First, it suggests that there would be value in conducting research into the mental health effects of climate change on more specific subgroups of the population of Nunatsiavut to gain a more detailed understanding of the issue. This is in response to their broad research on the topic. Second, the study asserts that the relationship between climate change and mental wellness be integrated into all public health policy relevant to the Circumpolar North which encompasses parts of Labrador as well as the three Territories in Canada. Third, the study suggests that adaptation policies allow for cultural and context specific conceptions of mental health rather than only western based interpretations which may allow important factors and nuances to go overlooked. The study continues by identifying more specific, targeted actions to be taken such as greater investment in healthcare staffing, climate literacy initiatives and programs oriented towards strengthening socio-cultural connections. Other studies within the IMHACC such as “Examining relationships between climate change and mental health in the Circumpolar North” provide complimentary suggestions, albeit at a vastly different scale.