Women pregnant during Fort McMurray wildfire faced increased stress, depression: study

WATCH ABOVE: It's now been almost a year and a half since the Fort McMurray wildfire began to burn. Researchers are now looking into the fire's impact on pregnant women living in the community at the time. Julia Wong reports.

Preliminary findings on research looking into pregnant women during the Fort McMurray wildfire evacuation shows those women suffered higher levels of stress and depression – approximately two to four times higher – than those who endured other natural disasters, such as the 1998 Quebec ice storm and flooding in Iowa and Australia.

Dr. David Olson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Alberta, is the lead researcher on the Fort McMurray Mommy Baby Study, which started near the end of 2016.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire’s impact on pregnant women studied in Alberta

Olson said there was an accumulation of stresses that resulted in a higher level of stress and depression in the Fort McMurray women.

“Prior to the fire, there was an economic downturn in the oilsands, so some families were stressed due to economic issues. Then the fire itself… it had many lasting effects,” he said.

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READ MORE: Fort McMurray fire: Timeline of events

“People were displaced for well over a month. Some people didn’t go back for three months, some people haven’t returned yet. Ten per cent of folks lost their houses. Others had collateral smoke damage. Folks were hassling with insurance companies, some haven’t even settled yet and there was the issue of rebuilding.”

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Olson said researchers were slightly surprised by the degree of increase in stress and depression but he adds that it reflected results from prior research.

“We know this is not going to have healthy outcomes, either for their pregnancies themselves or their children,” he said, adding there could be issues such as behavioural problems, obesity and diabetes.

Women participating in the study were divided into three groups: those who did not write about their experiences, those who did write about their feelings and others who wrote about their lifestyle, such as their diet and exercise. The women filled out a baseline questionnaire then spent four days either “journaling” or not; researchers then followed up with another questionnaire after four months.

Olson said the preliminary findings indicate that “writing helps.”

“I think it reveals issues that have been troubling you. It brings them to the surface and then you begin to deal with them. Otherwise, I think sometimes they’re suppressed and you ignore them and they actually affect your behaviours in ways you’re not really aware of,” he said.

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“It’s lowering stress and depression levels by a quarter to a third. I think that might be very important. Now we’re going to do followup with the children and we’ll see whether it does make a difference.”

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Whitney Joubert, 31, was six-and-a-half months pregnant when the evacuation was declared. She remembers seeing a “red sky” and going home to pack up belongings.

“I was crying. I just kept crying. I just kept thinking I had to stay calm because of [the baby],” she said.
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions. There was a few times where I just [waited] to feel her kick or move or whatever because… when you get so stressed, they tell you not to be so stressed.”

Joubert and her husband managed to leave the 2016 wildfire safely and she later gave birth to daughter Kalena. But she describes uncertain times after the evacuation.

“The whole being away from home, not knowing if our house was still there. There was a few days I had a few really big breakdowns,” she said.

“Sometimes I think I processed it well. Other times, as I talk about it, I think, ‘OK, maybe not.’ There’s some days where it hits hard.”

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Joubert, who is not participating in the U of A study, said her daughter is healthy and “a calm kid,” but she admits her stress levels have been high ever since the wildfire.

“They feel your stress so you try to stay calm for them, but some days, it’s hard.”

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Olson said further tests will be done on the children at 18 months to determine whether they are showing signs of normal development and whether early intervention through a mother journaling can mitigate adverse effects of stressful situations.

Desirae Jarvis, 25, was 32 weeks pregnant when Fort McMurray was evacuated. The preschool teacher describes a harrowing experience trying to flee as wildfire crept closer.

“I was right across from the Super 8 Hotel on the highway, just at a standstill. I could see it was going to catch on fire any second. I was panicking, I could feel the baby just kicking,” she said.

“I called my mom just freaking out, crying, ‘I’m not going to make it. I’m driving down the hill, and the grass is on fire on both sides of the hill.’”

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Jarvis said she could think of nothing else but the need to get out of Fort McMurray.

“I could just feel him pushing his body out. I was under a lot of stress, crying, scared and I really feel like he could feel everything I was feeling.”

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Eventually, the family was able to make it to Spruce Grove and on June 25, 2016, baby Connor was born.

Jarvis, who is a part of the U of A study, said she will be keeping a close eye on her son.

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“I hope it doesn’t have too big of an impact on our children going forward. It’s hard to say at this point. I work with kids for a living so I know what typical development looks like,” she said.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray children processing wildfire trauma: ‘I’m still not sleeping right’

Watch below: On May 2, 2017, Laurel Gregory filed this report about how Fort McMurray children are doing one year after a catastrophic wildfire ripped through their community.

Fort McMurray wildfire’s toll on young people
Fort McMurray wildfire’s toll on young people

Olson said the results of the Fort McMurray study could potentially have impacts on women coping with natural disasters around the world, such as the recent Mexico earthquakes and the devastation caused in several regions by Hurricane Harvey.

The study has been funded for two years. Researchers expect to start assembling final results next year.

Anyone interested in participating in the study can find information at the study’s website.