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B.C. wildfires, heatwave, crises having wide-reaching mental health impact: expert

Last Updated Jul 7, 2021 at 6:58 am PDT

(CREDIT: iStock Photo)

The mental health impacts of trauma, tragedy can be far-reaching: expert

Tips to cope with anxiety stress include taing a break from the news, reaching out for help

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — People across B.C. are likely feeling the mental health impacts of the deadly, destructive wildfire season, the province’s historic heatwave, and the confirmation that hundreds were buried in unmarked graves on the sites for former residential schools.

While grief is being most acutely felt by those directly affected — the 1,000 people evacuated from Lytton as the village was destroyed by fire, the hundreds who lost loved ones due to extreme heat, Indigenous communities and residential school survivors — the effects of tragedy and trauma ripple outward, according to one expert.

Jonny Morris, the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s BC chapter, says the impact of recent events is cumulative, noting the province has only recently begun to emerge from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s really important to acknowledge that we’re experiencing this while still managing a receding threat due to the pandemic,” he says.

“I think for people to be feeling like things are piling on, or feeling overwhelmed, or feeling anxious, and concerned, and tired — those are very normal responses to what’s going on around us. What we’ve just experienced here on the West Coast is unprecedented in so many ways. It has far-reaching impacts across the province, both for people who are impacted locally, and then for people who are affected at some distance too. It is far-reaching.”

Those who live in communities that can be, or have been, impacted by wildfires may also be reminded of their own losses or evacuations.

“Communities who perhaps were affected by wildfires in 2017, but who aren’t close to an active wildfire right now who are anxious and worried about what might come — that kind of triggering experience based upon past concerns and worries.”

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The heatwave and wildfires are also bringing up anxiety around climate change, worries which Morris says have been shown to take a toll.

“Natural disasters, climate change have long been recognized to have an incredibly immense impact upon our emotional health,” he says.

Morris says while tackling simultaneous crises does point to the need for a widespread, systemic response, individual people can and should pay attention to how they are coping, and take breaks from the news.

“There’s lots of coverage right now. We’re not saying for people to bury their heads in the sand and ignore it, but just to be mindful of your consumption of coverage and to prevent overload so that you can respond as effectively as possible to what’s going on around us in the world,” he says.

Communication and connection, he says, are crucial when it comes to taking care of ourselves and others.

“Asking for help, reaching out — don’t go this alone. If you’re worried about someone, check in on them to see how they’re doing,” he explains, adding the pandemic has revealed how damaging isolation can be.

Knowing that other people are having similar feelings and struggles can be powerful, he adds.

“It can just be reassuring to know that the things that are happening around us absolutely can impact how we’re feeling.”

A list of free, confidential resources is available online.