Life on thin ice: mental health at the heart of the climate crisis – The Guardian

A thin blanket of fog curls over the block before it disappears back out to sea. Exhale. Inhale. The freezing breaths of a dormant leviathan – slumbering somewhere out in the depths.

It’s 1am and judging by the flickering glow of televisions in the windows of the bleak two-storey rows facing us, it’s clear that few of the local residents are asleep. Shielded only by flimsy blinds it’s impossible to escape the midnight sun in the northern Greenlandic town of Ilulissat. The light here, some 180 miles north of the Arctic Circle, seeks out every man-made chink and weakness; the cracks and folds of window frames, even the keyholes of doors.

Only an hour ago a gang of local children, called in by impatient mothers, finally stopped bouncing on a communal trampoline. At each jump, in the heart of the world’s most remarkably situated public housing complex, they would have glimpsed one of the most incredible views imaginable. Only a large industrial chimney distorts an otherwise unhindered view of Greenland’s Ilulissat ice fjord, the frozen womb that calves 35bn tonnes of icebergs every year and sends them floating silently past, the size of city blocks, towards the northern Atlantic and a meltwater demise.

Constructed for coal miners in the late 1970s, the social housing units known locally as “the white blocks” are, in fact, a broad pallette of colours from blue to green and red. Seal blood and outboard engine oil stains the concrete stairwells. Graffiti – some of it scrawled in anger – is political: protesting against Greenland’sstatus as both an autonomous country and a part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Despite the international attention on Greenland, voices from islanders are rarely heard. Photograph: Dewald Brand

Away from global headlines about ice cap melt 80km inland from here, this is the frontline of climate change. In Greenland’s working-class housing blocks single mums, fishermen, hotel cleaners, pensioners and hunters have their own fears for the future. Changing climate and the encroachment of the modern age has dramatically impacted the Inuit who live here in Ilulissat, and in other towns across the Arctic.

The next generation of Greenlanders face the biggest challenge in the island’s arduous history. Released on Monday, a survey by the University of Copenhagen, the Kraks Fond Institute for Urban Economic Research and the University of Greenland reveals that climate crisis is having an untold psychological effect.

In what is broadly accepted as the first nationwide study on local reaction, the Greenlandic Perspectives Survey (GPS) reveals that 92% of residents think that climate change is happening, just 1% of residents do not. A further 76% of local people also claim to have personally experienced the effects – a damning figure.

Graphic: The vast majority of Greenlanders think climate change is happening

The survey, covering an area almost three times the size of France and carried out by researchers from the universities of Greenland and Copenhagen, also destroyed a popular myth: that Greenlanders overwhelmingly believe they will benefit from a thaw. Instead, the majority believe it will harm its people, plants and animals. The survey teams travelled by plane, boat and helicopter to reach some of the most hostile and remote locations in the Arctic over the past few months, to map the increasing social anxiety and trauma in Greenland connected to the climate crisis.

We understand the ice more than we understand the people

Understanding Greenland is impossible unless you look closely at a map. Perched beneath the world’s second-largest ice cap after Antarctica, slivers of land cling to jagged outcrops and natural harbours. Greenland has a compressed and angular coastline, designed to break the ankles and the resolve of potential settlers. Other than black moss and lichen, nothing much grows.

map of Greenland

Even the delicate summer flowers barely colour the terrain. There is no question, as you travel across it, that this feels like a poor country.

The island’s well-documented high rates of unemployment and alcoholism, depression and suicide, remain a huge challenge. Schoolchildren rank abysmally on tests relative to their contemporaries in Denmark.

The island’s ice sheet covers 80% of the land. Its centre, which is almost 2 miles thick, generates its own weather system. It is a mass so great that it affects the distribution of the gulf stream in the Atlantic Ocean.

The world’s largest island is currently the most topical place on earth. In July temperatures at the highest reaches of the normally frigid interior rose above freezing, melting snow at the Summit Station, 3,200 metres above sea level.

Nasa has a semi-permanent presence here and satellites capture the ice melt in real-time and in high resolution. Ice stations across the interior boast scientists from every G20 nation. Greenland’s melting has been adopted as the world’s problem – not that of the local population of 57,000 people.

Voices from the 90% Inuit population have been rarely heard.

“It feels strange to be saying this but when it comes to Greenland we actually understand the ice more than we understand the people,” says Kelton Minor, lead author of the survey. “Historically, many survey samples of the Greenlandic population were taken from the radius of local airports, which doesn’t give us a picture of a vast and complex country. This is perhaps understandable given the logistical challenges the country presents, but we felt it was both an oversight and an opportunity. There has never been a nationwide survey on climate change perceptions in Greenland’s history. For a nation in the grip of record ice melt, this felt like something that needed to be done.”

Social housing blocks in Ilulissat are the hidden frontline of the climate crisis. Photograph: Dewald Brand

Minor believes this randomised sample of 2% of the adult population provides indisputable data. “For the first time, we can begin to understand how the inhabitants of the island most people feel is at the heart of the climate crisis, actually feel about the changing world around them and how it impacts their own culture, food security and state of mind.”

More than half of all Greenland residents interviewed report dramatic glacier retreat near their settlements. Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of the study is the anxiety over the future of a way of life that has endured for a millennium; 67% of residents think that the crisis will harm sled dogs. Despite the advent of supermarkets in larger towns, most Greenlanders still eat wild foods they hunt, fish or gather, and 57% think hunting practices will be harmed. About half, 49%, think fishing will be negatively affected. Eight in 10 Greenland residents believe that in recent years the local sea ice, a key economic and social lifeline in winter, has become too dangerous to travel on.

First we teach the children to float. Their limbs jutting out in a star shape

For Greenland’s people, the sea ice is everything. When the sea freezes, the polar north expands, offering opportunity as daylight disappears. Greenlanders live their lives stuck between the Arctic Sea and an unforgiving icy interior. With no roads across the glaciers and fjords that separate scattered coastal towns, the freeze offers escape. For as long as the Inuit have been in Greenland, winter has been the time for visits, journeys, and hunts. Dogsleds, snowmobiles, even Japanese-built taxis with snow chains and fuel trucks can skid across frozen water.

“The impact of melting sea ice on the Greenlandic way of life cannot be underestimated,” says Minor. “Sea ice is an open highway, traversed by dog sled and snowmobile, connecting citizens to neighbouring communities. An umbilical cord to friends and family in remote rural settlements. When it fails to freeze in winter it’s an obstacle to the community, to society in many ways. The local population goes from being connected to others around them to living on islands, effectively an archipelago given the lack of roads in Greenland. This, in the long term, could bring an enormous challenge to the quality of life. Many of the ice fishermen we met were teaching their children to float if they fall through the water, their limbs jutting out in a star shape. The frozen sea is now a threat.”

Graphic: 79% of residents think sea ice has become more dangerous to travel on

We are tragically familiar with lean polar bears, unable to stalk seals on flimsy sea ice, invading Arctic settlements for food.

Greenland’s people face similar challenges. For a village society whose hunters have long supplied seal meat and halibut in winter, the cold season is becoming a time of fear to step on to the ice. Even the sound of Greenland is changing. Villages once echoed to the howl of sled dogs, but hunters are now turning to desperate measures to keep their family’s heads above water.

Shooting your dogs is like killing your own child

In Ilulissat, Claus Rassmussen is stirring a foul brew of oily blood and fish. “Seal stew,” the sled-dog hunter says. Strung out in a row, his family carry buckets of the murky soup to feed to the dogs – a nightly ritual for Rassmussen and his five daughters.

Over the past two decades, Greenland’s sled dog population has halved to around 15,000 with the numbers still falling. Greenland’s unique sled dog culture and the specialised training technology and knowledge is in danger of disappearing.

An interview with Rassmussen proves more emotional than anticipated. In his modest home, an old wooden cottage among social housing blocks, his face is contorted. Instead of the Greenlandic way – long silences and monosyllabic answers – there comes an outpouring.

There are six of us crouched in the room, including three of his daughters, as he talks about the decision to kill his beloved dogs because he could no longer afford to feed them. As he talks about shooting one, a dog given the name “my son” in the local language, the teenagers burst into tears – a shocking explosion of grief in a culture where emotion is rarely shown. In Inuit culture, strength, silence, and self-sufficiency are admired traits.

“I had a blood clot last year and couldn’t hunt,” says Rassmussen. “Here in Ilulissat we have the ice fjord and, for now, it’s strong enough to hold us, but I was unable to walk for nine months. The trouble was nobody wanted my dogs so I had to kill eight of 13.

“I killed my favourites. To spare them possible cruelty. That was my decision. The others were given away to people I knew. They weren’t dog people, but were interested in having animals – but perhaps they weren’t looked after in the way they should’ve been. I managed to take some back and since then I have been building up a new dog team.”

Claus Rassmussen is a dog-sled hunter who lives in Ilulissat with his family. Photograph: Dewald Brand

For his family, the sea ice is the only lifeline that can get them through the most financially challenging months. Since the age of 12, he has been pulling halibut from the fjord, selling his catch to the town’s fishing factory where it is filleted within two hours and flown to London.

With thick fur and strong shoulders, Rassmussen’s dogs are a cold-hardy breed of husky, which the Inuit brought with them when they migrated to Greenland. “It’s all about money. Unlike dogs, snowmobiles do not need to be raised or fed. We have vet bills. Our dogs are exposed to infectious diseases. The industrial fish waste we once used as dog food is now exported for human consumption. We can’t afford to go on and I worry that I am raising these new dogs only to have them shot again.”

The relationship between Rassmussen and his dogs is best revealed in an anecdote from his youth. “I was 12 and out fishing with my stepfather. A storm came in over the ice fjord and the iceberg calved and the sheet began to give way. We knew because the dogs spread themselves wide when the ice starts to go – to improve the odds of not going under. We could see the animals were worried we were going down into the sea – they were quiet and they looked to us to save them. There were others stranded out there that night and the helicopter came out from the town to airlift the sled teams. But they told us we couldn’t take the dogs on the winches. I said no to my stepfather. We can’t leave them behind to drown. At 12 I would rather have died than leave them. He agreed with me, but we were sinking. So we fought our way back – the helicopter above us streaming a path with its lights. We became heroes that night. Putting our dogs first. The Greenlandic way.”

As we walk to feed his new crop of huskies, a neighbour runs up to Rassmussen and hands over a bloodied plastic bag of discarded halibut. It is accepted not with thanks, but an understanding that everyone in the community must play a part in the preservation of a way of life.

Previously navigable routes across ice in Greenland are falling victim to global heating. Photograph: Dewald Brand

Sled dogs are as much a part of the landscape as the lichen and the sea. Their howls comfort people as the fog rolls in. Anna Martha Larsen, a former social worker, who has lived in the same housing block since it was built, recalls her late husband, a sled-dog fisherman, plying a thriving trade route between Disko Island and Ilulissat, a journey of 50 miles on 2-metre-thick ice.

“Despite long summer seasons, fish is getting harder to come by here. It’s abundant, but exported. It’s too expensive. I even see fishermen and their families having poverty problems and nutrition problems. They’re eating more pork and fast food, and there are more and more people with diabetes. We are surrounded by a rich source of protein, yet we can’t afford to eat it fresh. My husband wouldn’t recognise the world we live in here.”

Each winter more and more ice journeys fall victim to warming oceans. Disko Bay hunters can no longer lay seal nets under the ice in the 24-hour winter darkness. The Fram Strait, located between Greenland and Svalbard, a crossing for polar bears, has become increasingly treacherous. From Uummannaq ice fjord, transportation to seven local settlements is also no longer possible in winter, neither are crossings of the Inglefield Gulf in the north-west of the island.

Greenland’s world is shrinking.

Don’t be alone with your dark thoughts

For mental health professionals, the survey findings present another red flag for the Arctic’s Inuit communities, already known for its high suicide rate, and historical struggle with depression that is echoed across the region, from Greenland to the Sámi of northern Finland and Sweden.

The main concern in Greenland is the consensus that people who already have mental health problems are more likely to become anxious or depressed, or even traumatised, by events out of their control, like the climate crisis. Dr Courtney Howard, the board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, works at the intersection between the climate emergency and health in the Arctic.

“There is no question Arctic people are now showing symptoms of anxiety, ‘ecological grief’ and even post-traumatic stress related to the effects of climate change. The impact of climate change on mental health is a looming public health crisis. So if a Greenland-wide survey points to anxieties around food security and way of life it’s another red line between climate change and mental health,” says Howard. “We are searching for terms to capture this deep feeling of pain in Arctic nations – words like eco-anxiety or ecological grief – but for me, something called ‘solastalgia’ perfectly sums up how people living on the frontline of climate change feel. It was coined by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. It is also related to an Inuit word that refers to a friend behaving in an unfamiliar way. It means feeling homesick when you are home. Many of these islanders are in mourning for a disappearing way of life and they feel helpless and unable to change things.”

75% have personally experienced climate change

Howard’s biggest concern is the lack of acknowledgement. “We are challenging the medical profession to acknowledge the world we are inheriting. Schools and universities aren’t considering how climate change will affect people from a medical or a psychological perspective, so we are not training a new generation of medical professionals to help people in a fast-changing planet, and this is intolerable. We are moving too slowly on this.”

In Greenland, health workers believe in a need to work together. In her neat wooden chalet-turned-clinic in Ilulissat, a crayon-etched poster on Astrid Olsen’s wall reads: “No one is alone. Don’t be alone with your dark thoughts.” Working in mental health among the region’s teenagers for the past three decades, Olsen is part of an emergency response team that helicopters into Greenland’s settlements after suicides to prevent a domino effect of self-harm. She was here in Ilulissat a decade ago when, in relatively short order, eight adolescents in a community of 4,000 people killed themselves.

Astrid Olson, a health worker, encourages the community to talk about mental health issues. Photograph: Dewald Brand

“People who are socio-economically disadvantaged, like many people here in Greenland, are also more likely to endure mental health challenges. It’s fair to say many people know a relative or friend who has taken their own life,” says Polsen. “Things have improved in Ilulissat because we have learned from our mistakes but this isn’t the case in rural parts of the country. Many of my colleagues feel climate change is another issue we don’t need here in Greenland. My answer to them is not to be defeated, but to reach out to Canada, Norway and Iceland and find answers together. We are all on this ship.”

We call it the flip. This is what we do in summer

In the south-east of Greenland the rural population has been shrinking for decades. Young Greenlanders leave small villages for urban centres, in search of educational and occupational opportunities. Far more women leave than men. In Denmark, many Inuit, having left small-town life in Greenland, struggle with prejudice and unemployment.

Our local translator describes life in the midnight sun as “the flip”. “We live life in reverse,” she tells me. “We play video games and watch Netflix and smoke into the night. Then we sleep all day.”

Tasiilaq feels a world away from even Ilulissat. In the coastal town of 1,500 people a minke whale, caught the night before, was sprawled out in the harbour, its blood and guts spilling back into the sea. Here, teenage pregnancy rates are abnormally high and, considering the location, so is drug abuse, particularly growing dependence on cannabis among teenagers.

The weekend before our arrival two residents took their own lives. One was Ingrid Korneliussen, 24, who was unemployed and had three children. In recent months the children had been taken from her by the local authorities and placed into foster care. Not entirely unusual. In late July she had visited her brother, Age Korneliussen, at their mother’s home, but he had gone fishing. She killed herself shortly after.. Her other brother, Lars, struggles to articulate his loss. He laughs nervously as he recalls his sister’s love for his nephews and niece. “She was often sad when we were growing up,” he says. “Life was too hard for Ingrid.”

On the outskirts of Tasiilaq the spongy moss gives way to granite at the town’s graveyard. The Danes here, as in other parts of Greenland, tried to grow vegetables and failed. So they adopted a more realistic goal: converting the locals to Lutheranism. The front row of the cemetery is reserved for the recently departed and a shocking number have young faces staring out from the cracked and weathered picture frames on the low white crosses. Here and there the remains of wreaths, one in the shape of a mobile phone, can be seen. Everywhere plastic flowers flutter in the rising wind.

We no longer understand it here. We don’t trust it

Back in Ilulissat, the distant horizon offers a blood orange streak. It’s finally sunset, but the light never really goes down. I think of Claus Rassmussen’s take on the land, as he had fed his dogs, unsure if he can save them from a bullet in the coming season.

“We no longer understand the land here,” Rassmussen had said. “We don’t trust this rock. We need ice. Now you can have rain in the middle of the winter, and it can even start snowing in August. The frozen sea is what we need. We take our dog sleds on to the sea ice and we cut holes and peer into the ocean and take the same halibut our grandfathers have lived on. This is the balance of the seasons. This is the past.”

Half of greenlanders think the glacier nearest them has retreated

The local testimony from Greenland is not the only harbinger of the crisis across the polar region. Fish migration is changing. Walrus colonies are dwindling. Reindeer herding has become a dangerous business. The 300 reindeers killed by a series of lightning strikes in Norway last year was not an isolated incident. The Sámi in Finland now talk of pregnant reindeer miscarrying to conserve energy and survive in the confounding new seasons. This means fewer calves join the herd in spring to replace reindeer sold for meat. The death of old ways of surviving.

Before you reach the frigid grey-blue sea in front of Ilulissat’s social housing blocks you will encounter the Kæling Gorge, where older members of a nearby settlement once threw themselves to relieve society of their burden. Not far from here is the fjord that calved the iceberg that is believed to have sunk the Titanic. Greenland remains an unforgiving place where community and self-sacrifice remain strong, but nobody knows what dangers lie on the path ahead.

Across a landscape gripped by an unprecedented heatwave the locals spoke about the beauty of winter with a sad longing. I came here expecting the Inuit to have 500 words for different kinds of snow. But in the case of West Greenland, there are only two that are commonly used. “Qanik”, to describe snow in the air, and “aput”, to describe snow on the ground.

There are no local words for climate crisis.

The sun never fully sets in Greenland in the summer months. Photograph: Dewald Brand

Design by: Duarte Carrilho da Graça
Photography by: Dewald Brand
Production by: Jessie McDonald

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.