Residents in British Columbia are on constant alert or have been forced to evacuate homes as wildfires persist, devastating parts of the province. But another, less obvious danger is lurking, says one professor of psychiatry.
Two evacuation orders were issued Wednesday night, due to a fire close to Monte Lake, which is east of Kamloops.
In addition, Clinton residents remain on edge, since unpredictable weather is causing the Elephant Hill wildfire to grow, which already spans 65,000 hectares.
This has been the way of life for approximately 40,000 British Columbians who were uprooted over the past three weeks.
What kind of psychological toll must this disaster have on these people living in fear?
Dr. Steven Taylor, a UBC professor of psychiatry, specializes in anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders –he shed some light on this growing concern. Taylor explains the impact varies according to factors including age, the degree of disruption on their lives, the nature of the loss, and levels of psychological adjustment.
“Most [wildfire victims] cope well with losses, although they may experience some degree of distress such as anxiety, depression or sleep disturbance. Grieving the loss of one’s cherished possessions is a natural psychological reaction, although most people are able to move on with their lives,” said Taylor.
He added a psychologist or psychiatrist should be consulted if emotional problems continue for more than two to four weeks after the event. “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a possibility for people who perceived that their lives, or the lives of loved ones, were in acute danger. However, most people are resilient to stress and do not develop PTSD.”
For the firefighters, there is a greater chance of developing PTSD compared to the general population, due to increased odds of being exposed to traumatic events, and people in this profession should be extra mindful of mental health, said Taylor. “Fatigue and emotional burnout are also important concerns, especially for those who have been working long, dangerous shifts fighting forest fires.”
But PTSD isn’t the only long-term consequence of surviving a natural disaster.
“For people already experiencing a mental illness, a traumatic event can make symptoms worse,” says a recent piece in Good Therapy.
Other consequences such as eating and food issues, and obsessive-compulsion can arise, sometimes from the survivor attempting to control the environment after the storm took away their sense of control.
Taylor concluded the people not directly affected by the wildfires, for the most part, do not experience an emotional impact, though some become distressed from news reports.
As of Thursday morning, fire officials said crews had some overnight success with the Elephant Hill fire, as winds died down. However, B.C. Wildfire Service is preparing for busy days ahead, as new fires are expected to start.