What Climate Change Means for Minnesotans’ Mental Health

by Jocelyn Leung (MPH), Freshwater participatory engagement coordinator

child and adult's hands gardening

At Freshwater, we have the privilege of reading public input from Minnesotans all over the state in our people-driven systems change work (like the One Watershed, One Plan efforts). Increasingly, we are reading public comments where people are noting that they have seen their weather change over the last decade, and these changes impact the health of their groundwater, surface waters, ecosystems, and wildlife.

In some watersheds, farmers report three-inch rainfalls occurring more often. Other communities are experiencing more floods or seeing lake levels rise higher after rains than before. It is taking longer for ice to form on many Minnesota lakes, and that ice is melting earlier in the spring. Even before this drought, people shared how birch trees—and other plants or wildlife sensitive to warmer temperatures—are stressed by the hotter and dryer years or more prone to diseases and pests that thrive in the warmer than usual temperatures. Finally, wild rice and other aquatic plants are having trouble surviving the rapid water fluctuations that come with droughts, more unpredictable storms, or increased rain or snowfall depending on the year.

These observations from members of the public are also echoed in the state of Minnesota’s data. The 2020 State Water Plan talks about how:

  • 2019 had the most rain and snowfall across the state compared to any year on record stretching back to 1895;
  • the annual heaviest daily rainfall is 20% more than the historic average for anywhere in the state; and
  • annual temperatures across the state have increased 2.9° Fahrenheit since 1895, with winter low temperatures increasing by 6.1° Fahrenheit.

Mental health implications of climate change

  • those whose livelihoods (like farmers and owners of fisheries) depend on predictable weather, rainfall, or temperatures;
  • those who source their foods from wildlife and plants; and
  • those who protect their mental and overall wellbeing by recreating or living within and being a part of nature.

In addition, wildlife and ecosystems can be sensitive to changes in temperatures and precipitation. For instance, milder winters have allowed thinner coated white-tailed deer to migrate north to live with moose on the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s land, and these deer have spread parasites that has led to declining moose populations (check out this video from Vox Media).

For Native individuals following a subsistence lifestyle, or to “take only what you need and leave the rest,” declining wildlife populations do not only threaten their source of food but also their ability to carry out cultural practices. These practices, such as hunting and gathering, preserve their links to their ancestors; the Creator and spirits; and the lands, waters, plants, and animals (source: Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa) Many Native individuals and members of Native Nations consider the lands, waters, wildlife, plants, and ecosystems to be their relatives, and part of who they are. They don’t recognize a separation between “nature” and human beings.

For both Native and non-Native populations, severing traditions and shared practices on lakes, forests, and other ecosystems can be traumatic, and taking away these practices can also lower one’s ability to process and recover from other traumas and crises we live with or have inherited (intergenerational trauma). After all, mental illnesses are ubiquitous, with more than 50% of us being diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point of our lives, according to the CDC.

Public health scientists have relatively recently started exploring how climate change affects mental health, or individuals and communities’ emotional and social wellbeing. For individuals, achieving mental health means being able to handle day-to-day functions, think and learn, work towards fulfilling one’s fullest potential, manage one’s emotions including reacting to others’ emotions, and have strength in the face of adversities. As the previous paragraphs shows, climate change can make all of these functions difficult as it creates additional feelings of anxiety, distress, melancholia, frustration, anger, and other negative psychological effects.

Some examples

Even though each person’s encounter with mental illness is unique and no written piece could capture that multitude of experiences, we have learned about the following examples of how climate change impacts Minnesotans’ mental health.

Being a farmer comes with great responsibilities, and even in normal weather circumstances, market uncertainties can cause farmers to feel like they have little control despite how hard they work. Unpredictable rainfall and extreme events (e.g., floods) can wipe out fields, lower crop yields and profits, or even destroy equipment, and these events can feel like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Farmers are also not a homogenous group, and different social identities (e.g., race or ethnicity or location) create unique challenges that lead to slightly different mental health experiences. Here are two examples.

  • A history of discrimination has denied Black and BIPOC farmers access to land and capital, so many contemporary BIPOC farmers may be less financially stable than their white counterparts or have access to land with poorer soil health that leaves them vulnerable to flooding and contaminated water.
  • Fifth and sixth generation white farmers facing the prospect of losing their farm to increasingly unpredictable weather might feel grief, shame, and guilt for letting down their families and ancestors.

With all these stressors, it is unsurprising that the suicide rates of farmers in Minnesota have regularly been significantly higher than the general population, and these rates indicates higher levels of other mental illnesses, like depression. Increasing cultural acceptance to seek help for mental illness and finding enough mental health providers to meet growing demand from farmers and their families remain challenges for many rural farming communities.


Public health and social work researchers are investigating the concept of solastalgia, which comes from the words “solace” and “nostalgia.” Coined in 2003, solastalgia describes intense feelings of loss, grief, and homesickness from seeing one’s home altered or destroyed by environmental degradation and climate change. This might affect rural and BIPOC populations that are very aware of how climate change is impacting their surroundings and homes. For instance, many Native Americans and members of Native Nations live in water-rich environments and have a front row seat to how climate change is hurting their lands, waters, wetlands, wildlife, plants, and other ecosystems.

How do green spaces promote wellbeing?

Green spaces, such as community gardens in cities or healthy plant ecosystems in rural areas, protect mental health. Research has shown green spaces protecting elders from cognitive decline, helping children have improved memory and thinking abilities, and helping those with mental disorders recover and heal quicker. Climate change’s degradation of these green spaces—and the rich cultural or socially connecting practices they often support—could remove a powerful tool in protecting individuals and communities’ mental wellbeing. From reading input and talking to folks all across the state, we have learned about the following examples.

  • Community gardens serve as gathering spaces for immigrant communities and increase opportunities to carry out traditional farming practices. They are also a place to communicate with others in one’s mother tongue. For elders, these cultural and social activities can reduce isolation, which is linked to loneliness and mental illnesses like depression.
  • Green spaces in rural areas also protect people’s mental health. Recreational and water activities are relaxing for many Minnesotans, and being able to “escape into nature” can protect some folks’ mental health. People shared how they fondly learned how to fish or hunt from their parents or grandparents. Not being able to pass these traditions to their children or grandchildren could lead to feelings of significant emotional loss. We know that climate change threatens these water bodies and ecosystems. For example, increased rainfall washes contaminants into aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and lake temperatures are warming beyond their ability to support healthy fish populations.

Many Native Americans and members of Native Nations are impacted by trauma. This can be intergenerational trauma from forced removal and mass murder, coerced assimilation in boarding schools, the loss of traditional lifeways and language, and the broken treaties and continual breach of treaties by Western governments. It can also be current crises, like the escalating disappearances and murders of Indigenous women. Practicing traditional lifeways, ceremonies, and other culturally and spiritually significant practices are all powerful ways to process grief, heal, and build strong social connections that protect one from these traumas. Since so many of these practices take place on water, lands, ecosystems, and with wildlife, there is a concern that if climate change is left unchecked, Native populations could lose these powerful environments and practices that protect their mental and social wellbeing.

Hopeful next steps to take

It is easy to read all of this and feel defeated because of how daunting climate change truly is. But this perspective misses the realization that increased knowledge on how climate change impacts social and mental wellbeing also reveals what opportunities we can pursue to protect current and future generations. It is possible for governments and communities to collaborate in reducing some of the stressors that climate change brings.

Some ideas here include increasing technical and financial assistance to help farmers adopt soil health practices that are climate resilient, protecting green spaces in built environments and rural areas, and finding ways to help as many culturally and spiritually significant wildlife species as possible survive the changing climate. For community members who already need help, we can increase all communities’ awareness of mental health, and we can create programs and treatments that acknowledge the different experiences that farmers (white and BIPOC), Native communities, and other BIPOC communities have with climate change—and thus cater to their different needs.

As William Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”