‘Solastalgia’ and the latent worry about climate change – The Irish Times

For a vacation home in the 1970s, it held great promise, perched on the hillside road with a sweeping perspective of the ocean and islands. It was also small, on top of a single field and open to all the winds that blew.

Built of field stone as a “worker’s house” at the beginning of the 20th century, it was exactly half of a farm. Its three small rooms had stood empty long enough for jackdaws to fall into the fireplace and die. The smoke from the grass still breathed bitterly from its walls.

Doubling his space meant hitting a fellow cowbyre and using his rocks for a foundation. The new extension had teak windows, single glazing and a flat felt roof, it was all we could afford.

Moving there from Dublin meant sitting by the fire during winter storms and watching the ceiling heave and reset, just a little, with every bad gust on the roof. The wind bent the glass of the seaward windows, and I braced the large panes with wooden spacers and three-inch screws. On one occasion a gust blew out a strut and threw it into the room, but the windows never shattered.

It could all be pretty scary, but never deeply disturbing once we felt we’d been through the worst. Double glazing, a proper roof and the erection of tree shelters have since kept storms at bay.

In our first year, a major flood washed out local bridges. We have memories of the swollen creek filling half its deep ravine and the nights when the rocks clashed like cannonballs.

Here again, we can hope to have known the worst. We are happy to live on a hill that rises steadily to a modest ridge and not on a clinging bog that could threaten a landslide.

At the shore below, rising sea levels will subsume dunes and bog by the end of the century, a sight we are left to imagine. But the Atlantic remains a cradle of concern over what could come as a cataclysmic hurricane.

For all his ungovernable stubbornness in the past, there had been a continuity of seasons, a seemingly unshakable limit to climatic extremes, to serve as an anchor for the human psyche. But, as Bill McKibben wrote in End of Nature: “Uncertainty itself is the first cataclysm, and perhaps the deepest.”

British environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” to refer to the desire for a less anxious past in which one could feel “at home” in a safe place on Earth. It was something like this that led me to check NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) Atlantic storm maps for any hurricanes that escaped the red loops heading north.

The damage and trauma caused by extreme weather events are, however, at the root of mental illnesses: anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even suicidal ideation.

Even years after the event…respondents affected by the floods experienced anxiety after heavy rains. Anxiety was associated with increased levels of stress, sleep problems, panic attacks

At University College Cork, a team led by Dr Jean O’Dwyer attempted the first global analysis of data on mental illness in populations exposed to climate crises over the past 20 years. It is published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health.

Many of the 59 studies reviewed were from Asian countries hit by the worst floods and storms and showed the highest rates of “psychological impairment”.

In Australia, afflicted by droughts and wildfires, rural populations are among those particularly prone to PTSD, their access to medical help often being discouraged by “rural stoicism, self-reliance and the prevailing stigmas associated with mental disorders”.

In the United States, an emerging concern is that many older people are retiring to homes in East Coast communities at high risk of flooding and storm surge: They have “physical and psychosocial vulnerabilities” that have Need help.

The closest report to Ireland comes from the UK, where flooding and heat waves are on the rise. Preventing more mental illness in flood-prone populations should, he insists, be a public health priority.

Loss of emotional connections and sense of place and home could lead to the distress of “solastalgia…caused by environmental degradation and loss of home and possessions”

One in six properties in the UK are now at risk of flooding, with lasting mental impacts. “Even years after the event, according to one study, “flood-affected respondents felt anxiety after heavy rains. Anxiety was associated with increased levels of stress, sleep problems, panic attacks, difficulty concentrating on daily tasks, lethargy, nightmares, anger, mood swings and increased consumption of alcohol or prescription drugs.

Women were more affected than men, such as people who rented their accommodation. Loss of emotional connections and sense of belonging to place and home could result in the distress of “solastalgia…caused by environmental degradation and loss of home and possessions”.

The UK Met Office recently warned of severe flooding in England in February, after a cold, dry winter, which is part of La Nina’s impact on the world. And Ireland will probably take their share.

Meanwhile, Dr. O’Dwyer’s research offers evidence for new initiatives in public health, going far beyond simple post-event compensation.

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