Mental well-being also needs a sustainable transition
In this article, I examine the impact of changes in the natural environment on people's perceptions of well-being and inclusion in the Finnish North. The perspective cuts across the natural environment, mental well-being and cultural legacies, traumas and contradictions. As an example, I will use the Kemijoki River in my home region and the events associated with it. These are stories of us who depend on nature and what we could learn for the future.
If you feel concerned about the change in the natural environment, there is a name for this phenomenon: solastalgia (Albrecht, 2005). This term describes the anxiety experienced when changes occur in a familiar environment.
The changes in the Kemijoki River caused people to feel a sense of powerlessness, sadness, and helplessness that not everyone was able to express at the time (Autti, 2013). Hopefully, we have learned from those events, and the lessons that have followed, as there will continue to be a wide range of environmental changes in the Arctic.
Mind and environment are connected
The spirit of place or sense of place creates experiences of meaning, roots, and a sense of continuity for people. The concept of solastalgia is a way of preparing for future changes, both in concrete terms and in terms of identity. As Autti (2013) has argued, we need to redefine our emotional responses to a landscape that has changed over a lifetime.
When habitats and ecosystems are in crisis, understandably the stress experienced by people increases. Mental health challenges are becoming more common (Kela, 2023) and we need a lot more than remedial action as a solution. One solution is to increase inclusion, but this needs conscious work.
For example, a recently published study found that socially active leisure time in adolescence was associated with a lower incidence of psychiatric disorders (Timonen et al., 2022) and, conversely, socially inactive leisure time was associated with a higher incidence of psychiatric disorders, particularly anxiety and conduct disorders. In terms of passivity in children and adolescents, there are worrying findings about screen time (Koivukoski et al., 2022).
The ”damed” mind and body
Autti (2013) describes the feelings after the damming of the Kemijoki River as follows: ”With the damming, the role of the river quickly changes from a source of many meanings in life to a very modest one… the river is associated with silence: people moved along the river and spoke little about it. The change in the habitat and the nature of the river, and the shift of activities – salmon fishing, swimming, the river as a passage – away from the river were clear reasons for the silence. The loss of salmon in particular shocked river users, not only economically.”
In her research, Autti found that people had experienced cultural trauma and wondered why they had been silenced. She put forward the idea that the destruction of our habitat and the centuries-old everyday culture associated with the river could not be addressed or articulated in the community when it happened. She reflects on how the feelings of the community about the destruction of the environment may resurface in them decades later.
I recognise this feeling in myself and have often wondered how we can avoid this same sense of anxiety and sadness being transmitted and passed on to young people at present.
If traumatic events and issues cannot be talked about and dealt with, they cannot be learned from and applied to the future.
If traumatic events and issues cannot be talked about and dealt with, they cannot be learned from and applied to the future. Thus, the unspoken things pile up and accumulate, and are felt as an unrecognisable lump in the mirrors, river bumps, and recesses of the mind.
As Autti points out, not speaking was a sign of cultural trauma; it was a painful, primitive, and gnawing adaptation, especially manifested in those who denied loss and ’turned their backs on the river’. The attitude was that rapid change of living environment and activities was a traumatic experience. What made recovery and adaptation particularly difficult was that evidence of the change was still present in their living environment and will certainly continue to be so in the North.
Cultural heritage cut off but trauma transferred
The dramatic changes caused by the construction of hydropower in northern Finland undermined the well-being of local people on the Kemijoki River, causing depression and anxiety. Environmental trauma is characterised by disconnection, silence, and delay. Although trauma can be repressed for decades, it can still move forward in a socially mediated process.
The concept of cultural trauma (Alexander, 2004) helps us understand the silence associated with the Kemijoki. The event leaves a permanent mark on the community’s consciousness, colours memories and irrevocably changes local and personal identities.
The Taivalkoski power plant near my home is the last power plant built in the main Kemijoki River basin so far. It was built between 1972 and 1976. I have vague memories of this time, but mostly stories told by adults about a river that was becoming a stranger.
The construction of the power station caused other changes, for example, the construction of the dam forced people to move their homes away from the rising water, and the way of life around the river withered away (Yliniemi, 2011; Länsikosken maa- ja kotitalousnaiset, 1984; Alamaunu, 1985).
Cultural trauma is passed on to future generations. I remember my grandparents’ chilling stories of salmon trying to rise from the sea to spawn up the Kemijoki River, and in the attempt, they beat their heads against the dam and the sea below the dam turned red with blood and was full of dead salmon. These bruised fish were just being lifted into baskets and bags by people as they watched this scene with sadness.
However, the younger generations had seen the difficulties of the older generation in adapting to change, which had a strong impact on them. Such memories can live on as a psychic reality across generations.
Cultural trauma lives on the people
Marianne Hirsch (2008) has written on the subject of aftermemory. Post-memory is a form of social learning in which witnesses of a historical event pass on the memory of the event to subsequent generations, both cognitively and emotionally. Rather than actual remembering, it involves emotional sensitivity and imaginative revisiting of events.
Cultural trauma reflects the central importance of place for people. Emotions and ideas about places and their meanings spring from all aspects of human life, everyday life, and experience. The atmosphere of a place is influenced by the sights, sounds and smells that in turn depend on the activities that take place there. People’s relationship to a place is linked to its context, activities, and history, so places have their unique meanings.
Our environment reflects not only our community’s practical and technological capabilities but also our culture and society, our needs and desires.
Reflections on inclusion
The prospects for democracy seem to be poor, especially in Lapland (Jämsén et al., 2022). Given the past, it is unsurprising that people have experienced decades of lack of participation in decisions affecting their lives and the environment.
Where traumatisation has occurred under circumstances, i.e., over a long period of time, the normality of people’s lives has been disproportionate to what would have been good for them. Therefore, the abnormal may seem perfectly normal to such a person. Or conversely, situations that are essentially perfectly normal may become overwhelmingly difficult for the traumatised person to bear.
Autti’s research sheds light on the structural changes in the society in the 1950s and 1960s. The state’s political control and the builders’ dominant position maintained a grand narrative of construction ”against which conflicting views were rejected and silenced as inappropriate”.
From conflict to a more integrated future
Crises plague the world today, from conflicts and inequalities between people to the prevention of the good life of animals and climate change. Akrasia means a state in which our actions go against our knowledge or values. Western philosophy, already rooted in a strong belief in human rationality, has tried to explain this phenomenon, which is so vexing for the rational human image. How is it possible for a rational being to act against his reason— does this not show that his actions, and therefore himself, are irrational? And not only against reason but also against his emotions.
Crises plague the world today, from conflicts and inequalities between people to the prevention of the good life of animals and climate change.
After the change in Kemijoki, the relationship with the river was even shameful for the river itself: the once so mighty river, the giver of life, had been beaten out of existence. Vehkalahti and Ristaniemi (2022) reveal in their article how multiple strands of attachment bind rural youth to their local environment, where the past is present in the landscape and everyday life in myriad ways. Belonging was an ongoing process in which they were positioned on a continuum between generations.
Similarly, Ristaniemi (2023) reflected in her study, where concerns reflect a fear of intergenerationality and a break in the cultural continuum. The past thus influenced ideas about the future in many ways.
Similarly, in my own doctoral research, nature was meaningful to young girls, and they lived in constant interaction with it. Also in Pasanen’s (2020) study, one of the key elements is the possibility of interacting with the natural environment. This is in danger of being lost if people do not have access to the flow and rhythm of nature. Something has now been permanently lost along the Kemijoki River, as people can no longer participate in the natural movement of the river and the sense of continuity it brings.
As interest increasingly turns northwards, it is worth bearing in mind what happened in the past and its consequences. Nature has a value, the reflections of which must also be taken into account and appreciated alongside other values.
If you’re interested in the topic, here’s an award-winning radio series on the subject in Finnish: Lohen surma – kuka murhasi Kemijoen lohen? It also features my grandfather, who, along with the local men, planned some wild acts to stop the dam from being built. But these plans never came to be implemented. But perhaps it was not in vain, and their cause was passed on to future generations to be implemented in a new form of actions.
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Alamaunu, E. (1985). Muistojen Taivalkoski. Pohjolan Sanomat Oy.
Alexander, J. (2004). Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma. In J. Alexander, R. Eyerman, G. Giesen, N. Smelser, & P. Sztompka (Eds.), Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (pp. 1–30). University of California Press.
Autti, O. (2013). Valtavirta muutoksessa: vesivoima ja paikalliset asukkaat Kemijoella. [Väitöskirja, Oulun yliopisto]. (Acta Universitatis Ouluensis, Series E, Scientiae rerum socialium). Oulun yliopisto.
Hirsch, M. (2008). The Generation of Postmemory. Poetics Today,29(1), 103–128. 10.1215/03335372-2007-019
Koivukoski, H., Hasanen, E., Tolvanen, A., Chua, T., Chia, M., Vehmas, H., & Sääkslahti, A. (2022). Meeting the WHO 24-hour guidelines among 2–6-year-old children by family socioeconomic status before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: A repeated cross-sectional study. Journal of Activity, Sedentary and Sleep Behaviors, 2(2). https://doi.org/10.1186/s44167-022-00010-4
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Pasanen, T. (2020). Everyday physical activity in natural settings and subjective well-being : Direct connections and psychological mediators. [Doctoral dissertation, Tampere University]. Tampere university. https://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-03-1378-4
Ristaniemi, H. (2023). ”Täällä on merkitystä mihin sukuun synnyt, se vaikuttaa kaikkeen.”: historiatietoisuuden muotoutuminen ja merkitykset Suomen saamelaisalueen tyttöjen elämässä. [Väitöskirja, Oulun yliopisto]. (Historia Acta Universitatis Ouluensis. B, Humaniora). Oulun yliopisto.
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Vehkalahti, K., & Ristaniemi, H. (2022). Places of Belonging, Places of Detachment : Belonging and Historical Consciousness in Narratives of Rural Finnish Girls. In D. Farrugia, & S. Ravn (Eds.), Youth Beyond the City: Thinking from the Margins (pp. 195–214). Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.51952/9781529212037.ch010
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