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Over a third of youths in Fort McMurray show signs of PTSD in wake of 2016 wildfire disaster: researchers

ABOVE: Research finds natural disasters lead to PTSD in kids

An analysis of a survey of thousands of youths in Fort McMurray has found that 37 per cent of those who responded have met criteria for possible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the 2016 wildfire emergency that forced the evacuation of the community.

“[That was the] most striking thing we found… very high rates of PTSD,” said Peter Silverstone, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Alberta and co-author of the report published on Friday in the journal Frontiers of Psychiatry. “[Those numbers are] much more than I had expected… the number of kids who had significant PTSD symptoms.

“That’s more than one in three. That’s very, very high.”

Silverstone described PTSD as “a set of symptoms that affects your sleep — you can get very depressed, you can get anxious… you get very jumpy, you can’t concentrate, you can’t focus.”

He noted that stressors leading to PTSD often lead to long-term brain changes.

“These are really important findings and we need to know that there are resources to try and reverse the negative impacts that kids have experienced,” Silverstone said.

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READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire leaves many still dealing with psychological trauma

The evacuation of Fort McMurray and surrounding communities began on May 3, 2016 as a wildfire, which was eventually dubbed “The Beast” by firefighters, began sweeping through the area. Video footage of people fleeing the area showed many people driving on roads completely surrounded by fire to get out. The blaze destroyed about 2,400 homes and other buildings.

Watch below: A new study says that 37 per cent of the youth in Fort McMurry display characteristics of PTSD in the wake of the 2016 wildfire evacuation. Kent Morrison speaks with a co-author of the study Peter Silvertone to learn more. 

Over 1/3 of youths in Fort McMurray show signs of PTSD after 2016 wildfire: study
Over 1/3 of youths in Fort McMurray show signs of PTSD after 2016 wildfire: study

To put together their report, the study’s researchers looked at survey responses submitted by 3,252 of the 4,407 students at both public and Catholic schools in the northern Alberta community about a year and a half after the evacuation. The researchers said, however, that data analysis was only possible for 3,070 of respondents.

“The important thing to remember is this wasn’t straight after the fire,” Silverstone said. “This was 18 months after the fire, and in a followup study we’re doing as well, it looks like things don’t change much over the next year. So a lot of kids were impacted and these were quite profound impacts.”

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READ MORE: Mental-health struggles, depression linger after Fort McMurray wildfire: study

The findings suggest not only a considerable frequency of PTSD as a result of the disaster but also other lingering after-effects.

The report’s authors said 31 per cent of respondents met criteria for probable depression and that for 17 per cent of respondents, there was evidence of probable depression of “at least moderate severity.”

Another 27 per cent of students showed signs of probable anxiety while the report found 15 per cent of respondents met criteria for probable issues with alcohol or other substances.

Silverstone said these types of psychological indicators can impact how young students perform at school, how they do at home and how they do generally.

“Forty-six per cent of all students met criteria for one or more probable diagnosis of PTSD, depression, anxiety or alcohol/substance abuse, and this included students who were both present and not present in Fort McMurray at the time of the wildfire,” the report said.

READ MORE: Firefighters recall running towards ‘The Beast’ while thousands fled

WATCH (May 3, 2017): One year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, firefighters reflect on the battle and how fire crews were able to save majority of northern Alberta community

Firefighters reflect 1 year after Fort McMurray wildfire: ‘individual actions saved the majority of this town’
Firefighters reflect 1 year after Fort McMurray wildfire: ‘individual actions saved the majority of this town’
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Silverstone noted that the two greatest surprises for him, in terms of the results, were the high levels of PTSD in general among Fort McMurray youths and also “that kids who moved to the community after the fire, who hadn’t experienced the fire directly themselves, still had much higher rates.”

“That suggests the trauma is much more widespread in the community.”

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The authors said their analysis indicated that those students who were impacted more by the blaze showed “significantly higher” indicators of PTSD, depression, anxiety and substance abuse issues.

“They also had lower self-esteem and quality of life scores,” the report said. “Students with lower resilience scores exhibited a similar pattern.”

The authors of the report said they believe their findings underscore how natural disasters can have serious repercussions for youths’ mental health, “particularly for those who directly experience wildfire and, second, the role of resilience on youth mental health, with lower resilience associated with substantially lower mental health outcomes.”

“I think for the community, it’s a really important piece of knowledge, and they have to act on it and we are putting in place a program with schools in the new year,” Silverstone said. “Ongoing funding is always a challenge but we hope that will be arranged because that’s really important.

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“I think the bigger takeaway from this is that kids need to have some kind of resiliency training. I really believe strongly… that all kids should have to learn to cope with adversity and that we should be teaching this in schools so that whatever traumas kids have to deal with, they’re better prepared. We really can make a difference if we do that.”

Silverstone said such training was recently given to children in the Red Deer area and that just several weeks of it had positive impacts on mental health, substance use and bullying. He said teaching tools for dealing with adversity is something he believes should take place in schools across the province and that he believes it is something schools in Fort McMurray are taking seriously.

“I really want to emphasize how important and focused the schools are at changing this for their kids,” he said. “That’s certainly been very impressive.”

The authors said they believe their research highlights how important “long-term mental health supports for youth post-disaster” are and also the importance of “increasing youth resilience, which may serve as a protective factor against effects of disaster on mental health.”

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