Mental health burden of wildfires weighs heaviest on vulnerable populations: UBC experts
Small business owners and low-income households among those at ris
Most people are very capable of dealing with the sudden stress that natural disasters throw at them, but vulnerable populations can have trouble coping, according to UBC experts.
More than 45,000 B.C. residents have been evacuated because of 155 wildfires that have burned 3,200 square kilometres of the province so far this year. The shock and stress of natural disasters can be a lot to bear but most people forced to flee are more resilient than they think, said Dr. Steven Taylor, a professor of psychiatry at UBC.
“The fact of the matter is, decades of research bear this out – human beings are very resilient to stress,” he said.
“An important thing to realize is you’ll feel distressed in the short term, but if problems persist or you find you are having trouble with anxiety or depression or anger around the fire, seek out a mental health professional.”
But some people are at a disadvantage when it comes to coping with a natural disaster. Low-income households and families with a history of trauma may struggle to bounce back, says Jeremy Stone, a researcher with UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning.
“People with money, resources, and time – they generally fair better,” he said.
“It’s an empowerment issue. We have to do better planning to meet the needs and fill the gaps of low-income people, disadvantaged populations. As well as invest into their resilience.”
Small-business owners are often hit twice as hard as other residents because they need to rebuild their home and their business at the same time, he added.
It’s why Stone says organizations should provide mental health support in addition to economic support to communities affected by the wildfires.
“If you come in and you set up some sort of business centre or economic recovery centre … instead of just having technical service providers there, you should also have psychologists and other people like that there.”
Taylor, who is also a clinical psychologist, says some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the wildfires, but that hyper alertness, irritability, and depression are more common symptoms.
People can find mental-health support when dealing with natural disasters on the Canadian Psychological Association website.