Solastalgia; The Language of the Future

Alexi Barnstone - Culture and Philosophy

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In 1948 the poet W. H. Auden used the word Topophilia while introducing John Betjeman's poetry book Slick but Not Streamlined, a humorous and satirical reflection of the author's love for Victorian architecture. Auden explained that the word had less to do with a love of nature and more a dependency on a landscape infused with a sense of history.  In the Auden-Betjeman context, Topophilia was used to explore the writer’s love with the urban, constructed environment. Topophilia was an addition to the lexicon. A new typology exploring the emotional relationships people hold to their surrounding environments entered its embryo. The typology that emerged, and continues to grow in popularity now, may offer a new way for us to talk about the relationship between climate change and mental health in the future. Not only could it help us understand this relationship, but it could also radically influence the field of psychiatry.

Although Topophilia has existed on the fringes of the English language since the 1940’s, a typology for the field was not fully introduced until the 2000’s. In 2003 Glenn Albrecht, a former professor of Sustainability and Environmental Philosophy at Murdoch University, recognised a need to express people’s relation to their environment. Whilst examining the impact of open coal mining on the Upper Hunter region of NSW, Albrecht witnessed many individuals’ connections between mental health and home environment. Albrecht observed a melancholia that spread throughout residents of the Hunter Valley as more open coal mines opened up shop; polluting waterways and degrading biomes. Topophilia explained the love residents of the area held for their environment, but nothing in the English language explained the mental anguish they experienced as a result of its desolation. Albrecht invented a term to describe this circumstance; Solastalgia. Solastalgia is defined as the existential melancholia one experiences with the negative transformation of a loved home environment. In 2014 Albrecht, Raewyn Graham, and professor Phil McManus published a paper introducing Psychoterratic typology. Psychoterratic terms explore the emotional interactions between people and places. Among this new typology is both Topophilia and Solastalgia. On May 15th 2019 Albrecht’s new book Earth Emotions was published; a book explaining the full range of Psychoterratica typology. 

Solastalgia enters the fray at a critical epoch in history.  With the environmental movement burgeoning and climate change looming, Solastalgia is positioned to play a significant role in shaping the discourse around climate change; both within the field of psychiatry and in the general public. Within the field of psychiatry, Solastalgia may become a unique tool to address many of the political barriers the APA faces with respect to climate activism. For the general public, the word provides simple language through which people can recognise the psychological suffering that goes hand in hand with climate change. 

In the eyes of professor McManus, head of The School of Geoscience at Sydney University and co-author of the seminal paper on Psychoterratic typology, “the concept really resonates with a lot of people.” Since its conception, Solastalgia has experienced a quick ascendancy, permeating popular culture and the field of psychiatry.

As the term grew in popularity so did the number of peer-reviewed studies testing it. Indigenous cultures were a logical starting point for research since they often have extremely strong emotional and historical ties to land. In 2011 Tschakert, Tutu & Alcaro investigated the effects of slow-changing climate on the mental health of Ghanaian farmers. Withering crops, drying wells, deteriorating social networks and a loss of beauty triggered strong emotional responses of sadness in the Farmers as their land became arid. To Tschakert, Tutu & Alcaro this sadness was a result of ‘hollow homes’. 

In 2013 Hendryx & Innes-Wimsatt found increased rates of depression in people living in coal mining areas of the central Appalachian region of the United States. In Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, southern West Virginia, and western Virginia roughly 12 million acres of land are impacted by open pit coal mines. The land is subject to thousands of mountaintop removals, which use explosives and heavy machinery to remove entire forests, rock, and soil above coal seams. The overburden is deposited in adjacent valleys, severely impacting the ecology of the entire region. Hendryx & Innes-Wimsatt surveyed 8,591 people in the Appalachian region, in areas where open coal mines were both present and not present. Findings indicate a significant increase in rates of depression for the people impacted by the mountaintop removal coal mines, even after controlling for income, education and other risks for depression. 

Durkalec, Furgal, Skinner, & Sheldon identified evidence for Solastalgia in Inuit communities in Northern Canada. The research group focused on one key element of the Inuit environment; sea ice. The researchers found sea ice to be the prime source of autonomy, mental health, cultural health, and social health. Rising temperatures are melting the ice, and the Inuit people are suffering the loss of sacred environmental elements that enable their entire livelihood. 

Most recently, Ellis & Albrecht conducted a qualitative research study in the Newdegate region in Western Australia. The region is home to 4,900 broad acre farming enterprises and is known as the Australian Wheatbelt; historically recognised for its stable climate. In recent years the area has seen a 30% reduction in winter rainfall and higher seasonal variability. Ellis & Albrecht interviewed 22 family farmers and found a significant degree of Solastalgia among the group; with farmers expressing that nothing made them more depressed than the destruction of their land. 

In order to cement the concept of Solastalgia within psychiatry, it must become a diagnosis within the Diagnostics Statistics Manual (DSM) or the International Classifications of Diseases. McManus himself saw the addition of Solastalgia to our medical diagnostics important to the extent that Solastalgia could enable the conversation about finding solutions to the problem. However, he insisted on erring on the side of caution when proposing the addition of any new disorders to an already extensive list.

Solastalgia occupies a unique position within the field of psychiatry for the APA. Climate change is an extraordinarily politicised issue. Partisan lines are drawn between belief and disbelief on the topic. In a polling released by the Pew Research Center titled The Politics of Climate Change in the United States 15% of conservative Republicans were found to believe that humans are responsible for warming the planet and 79% of liberal Democrats. The political fissures that exist around the topic are conspicuous. Such partisanship creates an issue for the field of psychiatry, psychiatry and the APA must remain an apolitical body. Mental health transcends political affiliation. To take a position on the issue would be to risk isolating people from the field of Psychiatry based on political belief. However, the APA and psychiatrists the world over are also sworn to the Hippocratic oath. They must do what is within the best interest of the patient. Mitigating the impacts of climate change will also mitigate the mental health repercussions. President of the APA Altha Stewart, in a 2018 statement, said she “proposed that we work toward a strategy of forming effective alliances instead of standalone efforts to address the full breadth of this issue and to focus on creating a mechanism for long-term sustainability of our joint efforts beyond ‘disaster psychiatry.’”  It is in this conflict-ridden chasm that psychiatry finds itself. Caught in an ethical dilemma between care for the patient and the patients’ beliefs.  The APA must walk the fine line between climate change activism and advocacy for patients

It is within this ethical dilemma that Solastalgia may prove itself useful. The reality of climate change obliges the field of psychiatry to address the issue. However, without Solastalgia, mental health issues can only be seen as an indirect effect of other impacts of climate change, such as forced migration. Solastalgia enables psychiatry to discuss the effects of climate change directly on the individual, through the prism of a loss of sense of self. Through Solastalgia, psychiatry as a whole may be able to take a stronger position on issues such as climate policy. Advocating based on the direct relationship between environmental degradation and melancholia. This direct tie may prove itself useful to organisations such as the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA); a grassroots organisation with the mission of working to inform the public and address the profound impacts on mental health and wellbeing caused by climate change. The CPA can use Solastalgia to describe another facet of the problem, and lobby for action to be taken. 

Solastalgia is still a fresh-faced concept. Although some research exists around the subject, more is still needed to cement it within the field of psychiatry. Its’ rapid popularisation owes itself to a timely introduction. Amidst humanity’s climate change confrontation, Psychoterratic typology will have a significant role to play. Solastalgia, and its accompanying Psychoterratic terms, further the climate dialogue by giving us better language to discuss it; both within and outside the field of psychiatry.

Written by Alexander Barnstone

Alexi Barnstone is a current Honours student at the University of Sydney studying political philosophy.  Having graduated majoring in psychology and philosophy, his fascination with climate change centres around how the human condition and government will be altered in the years to come.

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