I first met Beth when she gave me a call to talk about her upcoming thesis project on eco-anxiety. We chatted about great authors, new theories, and our personal experiences of climate feelings. A little while later, Beth followed up with the finished product of her hard work, and we're so excited to share it with you here. Young people are calling for more attention on this important topic, and Beth provided a creative way to get her peers talking about it. Check out the images produced by participants through this photovoice approach, and if their stories resonate with you, consider sharing your own with us.
Photovoice: Humanizing eco-anxiety research
RMC: Beth, thanks so much for sharing your experience researching eco-anxiety for your undergraduate thesis. Tell us, what sparked your interest in this topic?
BG: Personal experience! I’ve spent the past 5 years studying Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo and found that my undergraduate education was full of information on climate change and environmental destruction that (while necessary to learn) was depressing, heavy, and difficult to emotionally process. I’ve definitely experienced eco-anxiety and eco-grief and seen it on the faces of my peers exiting lecture halls after particularly bleak lessons.
It is so important to learn how to cope with and manage these emotions. If we want to fight climate change we can’t become debilitated by our grief, we have to learn how to use it to fuel our action.
I had encountered photovoice methodology doing research for other class assignments and thought it was a beautiful way to capture data on sensitive or difficult topics without dehumanizing participants. It empowers community members to tell their own stories, to use their own eyes and voice to share their experience with researchers. Photovoice involves participants directly in the process of meaning-making and is an excellent starting point for community learning and action. From my perspective, the artistic and creative freedom of photovoice seemed to have therapeutic potential as participants reflect on their experience and create something beautiful to share with others.
RMC: What's the context for the study? What program or setting did it take place within?
This study was my undergraduate thesis project for my university degree in Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. The majority of participants were also undergraduate students studying in the faculty of Environment at UW as I recruited people between the ages of 16-23 who were involved in a local community-based climate action group or an environmentally related club or student association on University of Waterloo campus or enrolled in an environment or sustainability related undergraduate program of study.
I chose to focus on this specific population partially out of convenience and access (as I am well connected within that community of students), but also because I hypothesized that these students may have been exposed to increased mental health impacts of climate change as a result of their environment and climate related studies and/or extracurriculars.
The study process occurred between September 2020 and April 2021.
RMC: Can you tell us more about what you discovered through your work? What did you want to find out, and what methods did you use?
BG: My research questions were:
- How does climate change impact the mental health and well-being of youth and young adults in the Region of Waterloo and surrounding area?
- Can photovoice, as a research methodology, help to manage eco-anxiety and stimulate a sense of empowerment in youth and young adults?
This study used a mixed methods approach that brought together survey data, photographs and written descriptions captured by participants through a photovoice activity and focus group thematic analysis to address the research questions and share the experiences of young environment students.
Photovoice is a participatory action research (PAR) method based in participant photography. This methodology draws from feminist theory, documentary photography and empowerment education for critical consciousness (Sutton-Brown, 2014). Empowerment is a key pillar of photovoice research as participants are actively involved in the process of data collection and analysis (Bulla & Steelman, 2016). In my study, participants were provided with two prompting questions and were asked to then capture one photograph for each and write a short description of what was captured in the photo and their experience.
Prompting visual stories
BG: The prompting questions were:
“Does climate change impact your mental well-being or sense of happiness? If so, how?”
“In spite of the climate crisis, what gives you courage for the future?”
After completing the photography component, photovoice participants then took part in focus groups where they had the opportunity to share their photographs and written descriptions with one another and discuss shared themes between their experiences. This gave them an opportunity to participate in the process of analysis and meaning making.
RMC: That's great to put participants in the driver's seat of framing themes. What results did you create/uncover? What images, quotes, or experiences stand out?
BG: Through the surveys we discovered that 88% of survey respondents have noticed a change in a place that is important to them due to climate change, 66% have had a nightmare about climate change and over half “never” or “rarely” feel hopeful for the future in relation to climate change.
Through the thematic analysis of the focus groups we found that three overall categories emerged:
(1) Encounters leading to mental health impacts of climate change
One of the most frequently cited encounters leading to mental health impacts of climate change was witnessing changes or deterioration to places of personal importance, including landscape changes, the loss or displacement of species and intense weather changes.
The other most frequently cited encounter leading to mental health impacts of climate change was educational exposure, in this case through environmentally related post-secondary programs of study. Participants explained that studying and researching changes and loss due to climate change makes it an inescapable reality.
Consideration of future generations was another encounter leading to mental health impacts of climate change. Participants expressed concern for younger generations and whether they might have the same environmental opportunities or bear witness to the same landscapes one day.
(2) Mental health impacts of climate change/Emotional states
Eco-grief was a frequently cited experience that was described as a sense of loss, a heavy feeling, feeling bogged down, deep sadness, the loss of something you love deeply, trauma, and the tangible grief of inheriting a dying world.
Eco-anxiety and worry were commonly referenced emotional states that stemmed from threatening landscape changes, uncertainty for one’s future or the future of places of importance and concern about the intensification of potentially catastrophic climate change impacts.
“I feel like in an academic setting, there isn’t a place for emotion. Even though it’s such an emotional learning experience to do this type of work.” (Participant - Emily Swerdfager)
Experiences of solastalgia, guilt, hopelessness, anger, identity loss and functional impairments were also discussed.
(3) Resilience (Participants’ ongoing ability to live and function despite the mental health impacts of climate change)
The most frequently cited coping strategy was to spend time in nature, which was associated with captivation, peace, harmony, hope, sense of calm, grounding, recharging, ease of worries and strengthened emotional connection.
Community was the second most highly discussed topic in terms of coping. Participants spoke of the resiliency that comes from a sense of community, the power in putting aside difference and coming together and the importance of empowering communities to sustainably manage resources themselves when possible.
Political and environmental action brought feelings of hope and courage for the future to participants. Small scale individual actions were mentioned, such as gardening, growing your own food, eating less meat/vegetarian, creating less carbon emissions, energy and water conservation. Larger scale community and systemic actions were also discussed, including conservation initiatives, urban biodiversity initiatives, creation of accessible green spaces, increased opportunities for outdoor recreation and design of multi-purpose environmental interventions that serve both human and non-human populations. A need for systemic changes was cited.
Avoidance and humour were also mentioned as coping strategies.
RMC: This is consistent with what we find across many eco-anxious storytellers - there are lots of overlapping feelings held simultaneously about climate change. We feel anxiety and grief alongside motivation and courage.
Capturing the feeling of eco-anxiety
BG: The most compelling findings came from discussions with participants during focus groups:
“I’ve always lived a 10-minute walk to the river. It’s role in my life has changed along with the climate. As a child, we’d swim there almost every day and we’d skate on the shallow parts in the winter frequently. But after two floods… and unstable ice from the rapid freeze thaw cycles, the river is also a frequent reminder that climate change is occurring. It’s more of that reminder instead of what used to be a place of comfort and relaxation.” (FG1, P1)
“My brother just had a baby in November, which was really exciting, so I have a niece and that has been a huge joy in my life. But it also, at the same time was so heartbreaking, because I think about how when she gets to be my age, she might actually not ever get to see the snow-capped mountains. These places that I really want to bring her to, might not be there.” (Emily Swerdfager).
“It’s really hard when your happy place and the place that gives you peace of mind is also the place that kind of is the source of a lot of your deepest anxiety and grief.” (Emily Swerdfager)
“Seeing the Great Blue Heron reminds me that not all is lost and that I should enjoy my time in nature, rather than worrying whether it will last, focusing on just observing the things around while they’re here.” (FG1, P1)
“The truth I found in the caribou’s eyes will never let me deny the urgency of our environmental crisis or my responsibility to take action.” (Emily Swerdfager)
“It’s motivating to keep doing this work of fighting the biodiversity crisis, because I know that there are still more beautiful landscapes and species that I’ll get to see along the way. Even if they aren’t here for that long, to get to see them is a privilege, and I hope to try and tell their stories as much as I can through those experiences.” (Emily Swerdfager)
“This is why forests give me courage for the future, because it’s a constant reminder of ecological processes still working in our favour” (Mackenzie Cosman).
Bearing witness to deterioration of places of personal importance was the most frequently cited encounter that lead to mental health impacts while at the same time, spending time in nature was the most common source of resilience.
RMC: Wow thanks for sharing these images with us! I'm curious, what surprised you about this experience?
BG: One thing I found interesting about the findings of my research was the overlap between encounters leading to mental health impacts of climate change and sources of resilience. Bearing witness to deterioration of places of personal importance was the most frequently cited encounter that lead to mental health impacts while at the same time, spending time in nature was the most common source of resilience. Similarly, consideration of future generations lead participants to experience eco-anxiety, grief and guilt while also bringing feelings of hope for change, action and a better future. The complex web of feelings wrapped up in the experience of eco-anxiety is not easily untangled.
Another thing that wasn’t necessarily an expected outcome that became a focus point of this research was the impact that an environmentally focused education can have on the mental health and well-being of post-secondary students. The student demand for increased acknowledgement of these challenges and resources for support was powerful and in line with emerging research.
RMC: What questions do you have now about eco-anxiety and what we can do about it?
BG: Considering the endless opportunities for intervention and change on post-secondary campuses, the question that remains in my mind is less of a “what can we do?” and more of a “when can we get started?” And I hope the answer is now. In order to tackle the challenges of climate change that our future holds we have to harness the power of the brilliant and capable minds of our youth. An investment in the well-being of climate activists today, is a step towards securing a healthy planet for tomorrow.
I think a great jumping off point for action in relation to eco-anxiety and climate change is to share your story and listen to the stories of others. Storytelling is a powerful tool, it can bring people together and inspire collective action which is exactly what we need to make change, at the post-secondary institution level and around the world.
I'd like to thank my dedicated, knowledgeable and indispensable thesis advisors Dr. Robert Case and Dr. James Nugent for all of their time, advice and mentorship through this process. It wouldn't have been possible without their contributions or without the creativity and vulnerability of my participants.
Check out Beth's full paper here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/beth-grant/
Congratulations Beth, and thanks for your dedication to this area of focus. We can't wait to see what you do next.
Are you a student, community leader, or researcher who is working on eco-anxiety? Get in touch with us so we can share your work with our audience of eco-anxious storytellers. -RMC