The Antarcticness of mental health and wellbeing

Posted on February 10, 2022 by Alison Fox

Today's guest post is by Ilan Kelman, editor of Antarctiness, which published this week. Its companion volume, Arcticness, published in 2017.

The natural environment, we are often told, is good for our mental health and wellbeing. Does this include the remotest, driest, highest, coldest, most isolated, and allegedly most dangerous continent, Antarctica? To try to answer aspects of this question, I edited a new book, Antarcticness: Inspirations and imaginaries, just published by UCL Press and entirely free to download through Open Access!

Antarcticness lessons for survival and caring

Certainly, lessons from Antarctica for mental (and physical) survival emerge clearly.

Jan B. Schmutz led three other co-authors for a chapter on effective teams in an environment where pettiness or slight inattention kills. They lay out the ABCs of being an effective, and surviving, team in Antarctica: anticipation to plan ahead, building social relationships to know and trust each other, and collective reflection to continually examine and resolve concerns and problems.

Then, Andrew J. Avery, describes the culture and perceptions of Antarctic life in UK bases from 1942 to 1982. The Falkland Islands Dependency Survey (FIDS) later became the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), but the volunteer men (only) spending time in Antarctica continued their approach to camaraderie by still calling themselves “Fids”. Avery sums it up with, “The safe place, mentally and emotionally, was on base with your mates”.

Caring emerges in both chapters. Schmutz and colleagues highlight their conclusion’s crux that their work provides “practical advice on caring for their own team”. For Avery, it is the opposite, when he quotes from a “Fids” publication that the Antarctic experience means “caring not for the immense hardships and dangers”. For the Antarcticness of mental health and wellbeing, understandings of caring diverge.

Antarcticness creates fear

Caring is also an element for Wilson (Wai-Yin) Cheung’s chapter on running Antarctic expeditions. He explains the importance of caring for and respecting the people on expeditions and, even more so, the more-than-human of Antarctica given the environment’s conditions. Antarctica’s perils are paramount, given how quickly the weather, or the snow and ice already on the ground, can prove fatal.

Being in and around Antarctica brings home the rhythm and wisdom of nature which, if we miss it, could spell trouble. Cheung describes the risks, the need for awareness, and the potentially serious consequences always keeping expeditioners on edge. Echoing these sentiments, Rosa Jijón, in introducing her art and photo essay, raises “fear of darkness”, “fear of the immense ice”, and “fear of the Other” in relation to Antarcticness.

As Emma Liu writes, “In the Antarctic, there is no margin for error” and perhaps a mentally healthy fear of the environment keeps many people alive there. No matter how gorgeous and majestic the visuals, she accepts that place attachment to Antarctica is always “tempered by apprehension”.

Antarcticness supports mental health and wellbeing

Liu further represents her experiences as “anticipation, exhilaration, distress and finally

triumph”, mirrored by the collective of fifteen authors from the “Homeward Bound” chapter. As a women’s leadership training program, Homeward Bound takes groups to Antarctica to highlight exchange, bonding, stories, and science—all combining to support the enduring Antarcticness theme of caring. Caring for each other and for the Earth.

After Antarctica, one of the Homeward Bound authors explained that “I had become a better version of myself”. Caring for and about oneself must be part of Antarcticness, just as it supports mental health and wellbeing. It succeeds without travel too, as explained by the Homeward Bound group whose trip south has been delayed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, “Thinking of Antarctica allows us to believe in a different world, in the road less travelled… a strong sense of togetherness”.

Fear and support thrive side-by-side, overlapping. They can intersect constructively rather than opposing in tension. As I write in the volume’s conclusion, “Emotionalities of Antarcticness sketch the duality of isolation and closeness, both mentally and physically”.

The book Antarcticness will hopefully bring it all to an audience far wider than those privileged travel to the southern limits. Even--or especially--sitting at home, we can learn to survive, to care, to overcome fear, and to support our mental health and well-being through the inspirations and imaginaries of Antarcticness.

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