How being affected by B.C. wildfires may impact your mental health, and how to cope

A natural disaster can often leave those affected trying to put their lives back together in the aftermath, however, experts are encouraging those impacted to focus as much energy as they can on their mental health.

The wildfires in British Columbia are a prime example of how traumatic and painful an event like this can be for the those who’ve been affected. Many individuals have been forced to evacuate their communities, leaving their home and their belongings, while others have tragically lost their homes in the fires over the past week.

As a psychiatrist who assisted many victims of the Fort McMurray wildfires last year, the University of Alberta’s Dr. Vincent Agyapong warns that a massive wildfire can often cause the evacuees varying degrees of psychological distress, and recommends that they make their mental health a top priority in the days and weeks following.

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“Usually, following the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster like a wildfire it’s very normal to experience a wide range of emotions…These are very natural reactions to a traumatic event, and it’s normal for people to feel shocked, to have a difficult time accepting the reality of what has happened, people may be fearful that they may break down or lose control, or they may feel intensely sad at what has happened,” said Agyapong.

He adds that while these feelings are normal, they will occasionally progress into more defined mental health disorders.

“For some people, they may get worse and begin to impact their ability to be able to socialize and perform their work functions and family responsibilities. That is when it has gone from just a normal response to crossing the line into going into some form of mental health disorder,” Agyapong continues.

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Agyapong explains that evacuees in B.C., as well as those who’ve lost belongings and property in the wildfires, could potentially go through several stages of psychological stress, including acute stress disorder, adjustment disorder and, at the highest scale of psychological unrest following a trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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According to Agyapong, acute stress disorder can be described as an exaggerated response to the traumatic event experienced by the individual that may impact their social and occupational functioning as well as their family responsibilities. This disorder, he explains, usually resolves itself in approximately one month.

Agyapong also describes a more severe reaction known as adjustment disorder, which can continue for approximately six months. If psychological stress continues for longer than this, Agyapong warns that the individual may be experiencing PTSD.

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Symptoms of PTSD, he says, may include “very intrusive symptoms like recurring distressing memories, or flashbacks of the fire, intense psychological distress, or more psychological reaction in response to any symbols that have aspects of the fire.”

Individuals may avoid watching news items that mention the events taking place, they attempt to suppress distressing memories and feelings and they may refuse to visit places that remind them of the fires. In addition, Agyapong says they may experience recurring nightmares, may become irritable, have trouble concentrating, and may begin to place blame on various parties for what’s taken place.

“Some people feel helpless and very vulnerable, others may become angry, sometimes even at God for allowing a thing like that to happen, sometimes at the government’s response, even though the government may be doing all they probably can do under the circumstances,” he said.

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Following the wildfire disaster in Fort McMurray last year, the Canadian Psychological Association compiled a handful of resources for those trying to cope in the aftermath of a wildfire. One of the primary suggestions made was to “take a news break,” due to the stress that often comes with watching replays of a traumatic event. Agyapong agrees with this, adding that there is no reason for survivors to “re-traumatize themselves.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada publication, Responding to Stressful Events was included in this package, an encourages those recovering to participate in their communities and explore activities they previously enjoyed to “restore a sense of safety and control.”

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If there are children involved, the American Psychological Association recommends that they be given additional care and attention during this time, and suggests providing play experiences that relieve tension and help them share their feelings, such as drawing.

Furthermore, Agyapong stresses that accessing support from friends and family and refraining from abusing drugs and alcohol are some of the most crucial ways those affected by the wildfires can safeguard their mental health during this time.

“In moments like this, I think it’s important for family members who have not been impacted to rally around the family members who might have been impacted by the effects of the fire…. So basically calling people and reassuring them of your love and willingness to share the burden,” he explained.

At this time, B.C. remains under a state of emergency as hundreds of fires continue to plague the province.

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