As thousands of Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees begin to return home, the reality of the devastation is starting to set in and the municipality wants residents to know they are not alone.
“Loss covers a very broad topic and everybody in this community is going to feel it to one degree or another,” Michael Donaldson, supervisor of counselling services with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said.
A team of about 130 mental health staff members, from several areas of expertise, are currently on the ground in Fort MacKay, Anzac and Fort McMurray to offer support. From Red Cross and Alberta Health Services staff to chaplains and an entire trauma team, there is no shortage of people willing to help.
Anyone in need of support is asked to approach a person wearing a pink lanyard around their neck.
“That is a safe person. That is somebody who can listen to you, that is going to be there, just a shoulder. Somebody to walk through this with you,” Donaldson said.
The trauma team, from B.C., has also brought with it a healing dog to offer comfort and support.
Arianna Johnson works at the local food bank. Staff members were forced to throw out most of the food because of potential contamination from the fire.
“For people who work every day to bring food in to make sure people don’t go hungry, it’s been really emotional, really hard for most of us to sit around and watch all this food go out.”
For Johnson, her work isn’t the only thing weighing on her mind. Her husband is returning to Fort McMurray this weekend and the reality of her situation, a severely damaged home, is starting to sink in.
“I’m up and down. I’ve been pretty good for the most part,” she said.
“I’m starting to think about, ‘I need to find a new home to live in and I need to kind of start making those plans until our home is rebuilt.'”
Donaldson said the feeling of loss may not settle in right away and for some it will go far beyond physical loss.
“Sometimes we think of loss as just maybe our home in particular, that’s the most obvious, but there are so many other things. For example, I could lose my relationship with my neighbour who is no longer there, some of my personal mementos, my sense of safety and security in the community.”
The counsellor said it’s important for people to look out for each other, and watch for changes in behaviour.
“Things like not sleeping, appetite changes, those sorts of things, particularly in our children, that’s where it shows up often times,” Donaldson said.
Watch below: How to talk to your children about the Fort McMurray wildfire
Donaldson said the municipality is working on developing a three- to five-year plan for mental health services.
Anyone looking for mental health support is also encouraged to reach out to Alberta Health Service’s mental health helpline at 1-877-303-2642.