A group of B.C. researchers have launched a national project to automatically monitor population-level expressions of climate distress in real time. The final goal: warn front-line workers and communities before a patient spirals into crisis.
Led by Simon Fraser University researcher Kiffer Card, the project is part of a growing effort to understand how climate change is impacting Canadians’ mental health.
The research will begin with a year-long traditional survey capturing the sentiments of up to 20,000 individual Canadians. Meanwhile, working with Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, the researchers will compare that survey data — “a barometer,” as Card puts it — with aggregate, population-level data harvested from social media posts across the country.
“This is on the order of millions of Tweets every day,” said Card.
It’s not the first time Card has turned to online communities to track the mental health of Canadians.
In a pilot study released in January 2022, Card and his colleagues from the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance found the heat dome that scorched British Columbia in late June led to a 13 per cent average rise in anxiety over the effects of climate change.
Climate distress has even pushed some in B.C. to attempt suicide, according to a Glacier Media report. And researchers worry that for every degree of temperature rise, those rates will only go up.
Unlike Card’s past work tracking anxiety levels after the 2021 North American heat wave, the latest research will track the mental health of individuals and communities across Canada over the long term.
The idea is to capture and measure climate-related ecological distress “continuously and unobtrusively,” without breaching anyone’s personal privacy.
Card says he expects to see online signs of climate distress spike during a flood-triggered mudslide, heat wave or wildfire — local events that usually prompt people to express pain, seek community and cast culpability through social media.
But a lot of stress people face arrives when the United Nations releases its latest climate report or when an alarming new scientific study is published, he said.
Throughout the surveillance period, multiple breakout surveys will test public sentiment, from how people are coping to how climate distress might change depending on gender.
With access to the programming interfaces of large social media platforms, the researchers plan to calibrate the massive amount of data using machine learning to gauge when and where there’s a spike in climate anxiety.
Card says he hopes the so-called “digital epidemiology” will allow his team to create an alert tool to warn educators, social workers, doctors and counsellors of a communal spike in anxiety.
“Our hope is we can tell a psychologist with patients prone to climate worry to say, ‘Today is a good day to reach out to that patient,’” he said.
The study comes amid worrying signs climate anxiety is on the rise.
Last September, a global survey of 10,000 young people across 10 countries found nearly half of those between 16 and 25 reported psychological distress over climate change.
In one poll released earlier this month, a third of young adults in Canada say global warming is too far along for them to do anything about it.
But even low-level anxiety over climate change has the potential to prompt big changes in the coming years, says Card.
“Climate change influences how people live their lives: where they live, whether they want kids, and what jobs to take,” said the researcher.
“These are profound decisions for all of us and the impacts they have at a population level are society-changing.”