Community resilience in the face of environmental and public health crises

Photo Credit: SJBPH

In the fall and winter of 2021 and 2022, San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) co-hosted Well-Being Amid Disruption Forums in collaboration with the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Thriving Earth Exchange, the Department of Environment and Sustainability at Fort Lewis College (FLC), and the Colorado Local Science Engagement Network (a collaboration of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Cooperative Institute of Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder). In the face of challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and other environmental and public health crises, the community forums generated discussion on adaptive strategies to prepare for future impacts and build resilience in our communities. 

Five forums among two cohorts were held following COVID-safe protocols between October 2021 and January 2022. Approximately 50 community members participated in the forums representing a diverse cross-section of local government partners, non-profits, higher education, public health, and other stakeholders. The main themes that emerged from the forums centered around four topics: “Building Connection and Communication,” “Equitable Living Related to Housing, Food, and Resources,” “Interconnected Health and Well-Being of People and the Planet,” and “Reconciling Political Divides.” The forums were facilitated by Sandhya Tillotson with Sagebrush Ltd. A short video was produced by local videographer Alex Wilson summarizing the forums. 

One of the more concerning trends identified through the forums is that climate change is impacting mental health and leading to increased prevalence of what people have termed “climate anxiety,” with predictions that these impacts will continue to harm youth more than other demographics. As our society experiences more extreme weather events, indicators point to an increase in negative impacts on environmental health, health equity, and people’s well-being. 

While rural communities like the ones in Southwest Colorado have less power to impact global climate change trends, forums and community conversations like “Well-Being Amid Disruption” can empower individuals to think creatively about possible solutions and talk openly about the anxiety they feel, which can help reduce feelings of helplessness. Despite the onslaught of concerning scientific findings and the predilection of media organizations to catastrophize natural disasters, rural communities are in control of maintaining and building resilience and devising strategies so that emerging environmental and public health crises are less devastating to people’s well-being. 

Coupled with climate change impacts on mental health, we also know that COVID-19 has had an outsized impact on deaths of despair and loneliness. COVID-19 has exacerbated a loneliness epidemic with a particularly acute impact on young Americans. Deaths of despair are on the rise in the U.S. in ways that are not seen in other nations, as drug overdose deaths surpassed the 100,000 threshold in the period from April 2020 to April 2021, and indeed the outsized impact this has on working class Americans is concerning. 

The forums highlighted that during times of public and environmental health crises, coupled with social and political turmoil, it is crucial to build connections and collaboratively devise strategies to build community health resilience and maintain economic stability. These relationships and the ability to have discussions across differences are what will propel our region towards more positive outcomes. 

“There are numerous and well documented challenges our community is facing as a result of COVID-19 and other recent public and environmental health crises. What’s clear to us, is that COVID-19 laid to bare systemic health inequities nationwide, and that our mission going forward will be building resilience among our population and continuing to deliver services that help people achieve their best potential of health,” said Liane Jollon, Executive Director, SJBPH. 

“How we use and communicate science during crises can either magnify our helplessness and take away our power or motivate us – so we can manifest our power, build community and act to transform crisis to security, and a better world. Science can connect us to one another and to the Earth,” said Heidi Steltzer, Professor of Environment & Sustainability, Fort Lewis College. 

“Gathering input from the community is essential to not only uncovering challenges impacting people’s lives, but also in shaping solutions and creating community-driven change,” said Sarah Brummett, Director, Office of Suicide Prevention, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

There are several directions that these forums may lead the community. Partners identified the following next steps: 

  • Organizers plan to host community meetups monthly in 2022 to continue the momentum built during the forums. 
  • The AAAS Colorado Local Science Engagement Network intends to share the results of these forums with their members.
  • Community participants may take personal, organizational, and collective action steps towards our vision by addressing these challenges and opportunities. 
  • We hope to inspire other rural communities to host community dialogues on the challenges and opportunities of our times and provide to them the resources developed in our series of forum that center dialogue around values and visioning the future we want. 

To learn more about San Juan Basin Public Health’s environmental health, health promotion, and prevention health programs, visit the SJBPH website. 

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