Examining relationships between climate change and mental health in the Circumpolar North

Ashlee Cunsolo Willox
Eleanor Stephenson
Jim Allen
Francois Bourque
Joshua Moses, Haverford College


Indigenous people living in the Circumpolar North rely, to varying degrees, on the natural environment and the resources it provides for their lifestyle and livelihoods. As a consequence, these Northern Indigenous peoples may be more sensitive to global climate change, which has implications for food security, cultural practices, and health and well-being. To date, most research on the human dimensions of climate change in the Circumpolar North has focused on biophysical issues and their consequences, such as changing sea ice regimes affecting travel to hunting grounds or the effects of melting permafrost on built infrastructure. Less is known about how these changes in the environment affect mental health and well-being. In this paper, we build upon existing research, combined with our community-based research and professional mental health practices, to outline some pathways and mechanisms through which climate change may adversely impact mental health and well-being in the Circumpolar North. Our analysis indicates that mental health may be affected by climate change due to changes to land, ice, snow, weather, and sense of place; impacts to physical health; damage to infrastructure; indirect impacts via media, research, and policy; and through the compounding of existing stress and distress. We argue that climate change is likely an emerging mental health challenge for Circumpolar Indigenous populations and efforts to respond through research, policy, and mental health programming should be a priority. We conclude by identifying next steps in research, outlining points for policy, and calling for additional mental health resources that are locally responsive and culturally relevant.