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Is the world paying enough attention to indigenous mental health?

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By Miriam Lawson, Communications Officer at Minority Rights Group

Words matter. Having the words to describe how we are feeling means we can share that feeling with others. Speaking about our collective experiences means we can do something about them. This year’s World Mental Health Day called on us to ‘make mental health and wellbeing for all a global priority’. But who is included in mental health discourse? And who is being left out?

Though an often overlooked aspect of global health, mental health, along with climate change, is an issue of urgent importance. The intersections of mental health and climate change are a topic of growing conversation, opening new debates, new concepts and new areas of inquiry. The term ‘eco-anxiety’ has been coined, expressing how it feels to be uncertain and afraid of a future world ravaged by impending climate catastrophe.

But climate change is already a daily reality. Like mental illness, it’s an issue known to reflect and often exacerbate existing inequalities. At a global level, people in the global south are already facing extreme weather, rising sea levels, food insecurity and countless other changes to their environment.

Understanding solastalgia

Such changes affect mental health profoundly. Seeking to encapsulate this form of pain, Philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term ‘solastalgia’, meaning ‘the homesickness you have when you are still at home’ or ‘when your endemic sense of place is being violated.’ The term has given rise to a new area of study as we seek to understand the effects of climate change on our wellbeing: a matter of urgent priority in a rapidly changing world. For the first time, the recent UN IPCC report on climate change has explicitly discussed its impacts on our psychological wellbeing.

Indigenous and other marginalized land-dependent communities – often located as close to the most acute climatic changes as they are far from sites of power – are some of the most vulnerable to climate change. Crucially though, this vulnerability stems not only through proximity to impacts, but also through a deep connection to the natural environment. For these communities, changes to their ecosystem are more than a matter of material survival.

For people and peoples deeply rooted in their natural environment, threats to their land constitute threats to knowledge, threats to culture, threats to history and heritage, threats to healing and medicine, and threats to religion and spiritual practice. Indeed, with all these aspects of life often deeply intertwined, a threat to the natural environment can endanger the survival of their very identity. Indigenous peoples account for most of the world’s cultural diversity and live in environments holding most of the world’s biodiversity. This wealth of diversity and knowledge is critical in understanding and adapting to climate change.

Yet most work examining solastalgia does not explore the concept from indigenous perspectives, leaving the knowledge and voices of indigenous peoples out of the equation. This knowledge gap reflects the concomitant gaps in climate change policy and strategy that further exclude minority, indigenous and other marginalized land-dependent communities. We must fill these gaps to understand how ecosystem traumas and human traumas are entangled.

Experiences of indigenous communities

In Uganda, the forests of Ekyuya, Semuliki, Bwindi and Mgahinga are the ancestral homes of Batwa communities. The forests are a source of food and medicine, and contain sites of spiritual significance and connections to the ancestors of Batwa. Expulsions from these forests in the name of conservation have  The term ‘land trauma’ is helpful in evoking the experiences of communities such as Batwa, for whom the natural environment is not merely a supply of resources waiting to be extracted but something with which human beings can have intimate, multifaceted and reciprocal relationships.

As temperatures rise and the snow melts in the Arctic, Sámi people in Finland’s Sápmi region are facing irrevocable changes to their environment and consequent experiences of solastalgia. Warming winters and disappearing snow at once tangibly endanger traditional Sámi livelihoods and the more intangible, though no less vital, sense of place, continuity and strong cultural identity that sustain them. The mutation of their ecosystem is even resulting in language loss: ‘the words keep the same, but the meaning is changing.’ It is plain to see how such upheavals and erosions to a community’s entire way of being represent a unique danger to their mental health. Yet it is precisely such ways of being that are excluded from the global conversation on climate change, leaving its impacts on the mental health of some of the planet’s most vulnerable communities off the agenda.

The marginalization of indigenous ways of living in favour of extractive and exploitative industries is mirrored in the extractive and unequal dynamics at work in global systems of knowledge production. Often, peoples of the global South are relegated to being the objects of study rather than the originators of knowledge. When indigenous knowledge is marginalized, indigenous people are dehumanized. Solastalgia needs to be examined through a multi-disciplinary, indigenous lens, to tip the balance back towards some of our planet’s must vulnerable communities and tackle the threat of climate change to their mental health.

Land Body Ecologies at COP 27

Minority Rights Group is a co-founder of Land Body Ecologies (LBE), an interdisciplinary research group exploring solastalgia through the lens of marginalized communities, via a global and interdisciplinary network of human rights practitioners, artists, design researchers and academic. Its research is rooted within communities at the forefront of today’s climate, ecosystem and land rights issues. Our multifaceted work aims to widen climate change discourse and influence the ways solastalgia and land trauma are understood in mental healthcare and policy.

Experiences of solastalgia and land trauma, and indigenous knowledge of environmental stewardship must be valued and integrated into policy and strategy. States must legislate and provide funding so that land dependent peoples can defend the ecosystems they call home from destruction. The world’s leaders, decision-makers, academics and activists currently at COP 27 in Egypt should be considering this as they make pledges and negotiate climate action targets.

LBE members are attending COP 27 too, ensuring mental health and indigenous knowledge are on the agenda.

Yesterday at the conference, we hosted a side event at the WHO’s health pavilion titled ‘Forest as Medicine: Intersections of biodiversity loss, traditional knowledge and mental health’, featuring Sylvia Kokunda, Archana Soreng, Laetania Belai Djandam, and Cindy Kobei. The all-indigenous, all-woman panel spoke powerfully about the healing essence of forests for indigenous communities, how their traditional medicinal knowledge must be acknowledged and respected, and how changes to both forests and their relationships with forests are harmful to indigenous mental health.

These are the voices we all need to be listening to.

As we look further beyond to an ever-warming planet, the voices of minorities and indigenous peoples must be meaningfully heard. Only by doing this can we truly make mental health for all a global priority.

Watch the event:

 

Photo: Dawn at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the ancestral lands of Batwa, from where they were evicted in the early 1990s. Credit: Samrawit Gougsa / Minority Rights Group

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