The story at a glance
- Wildfires are among the most devastating natural disasters, in part because of their tendency to recur in specific geographic areas.
- Compounded by climate change, wildfires have become more frequent in recent decades, wreaking havoc on vulnerable rural communities and first responders.
- But improving access to mental health care and promoting resilience among survivors can help combat some of the trauma inflicted by these events.
Natural disasters are traumatic experiences. Whole communities are uprooted, can be displaced or even destroyed.
When it comes to wildfires, mental health care providers face a unique and exacerbated set of challenges. Forest fires become more frequent, spreading further and burning longer thanks to climate change, fueling a seasonal natural disaster that strikes rural and urban areas alike.
“The problem with fires, especially in the Southwest, is that it’s often a recurring episode,” said Gagandeep Singh, a trained psychiatrist and chief medical officer for Mercy Care in Arizona, at Changing America.
Mercy Care is a nonprofit healthcare plan that serves residents on Medicaid and several special needs populations. Singh says the seasonal nature of wildfires — that they can recur and often in the same location — can take a toll on the mental health of survivors.
“We are going to start our third or fourth major fire in [Arizona]”, Singh said. “And that often leads to a lot of re-exposures. You’ve been through something really difficult and life-threatening, and now you’re being re-exposed to it, which can really amplify that anxiety and worry.
Psychological trauma following large-scale calamities is relatively common, and some survivors even move to avoid future disasters. Reexposure to major fires can also amplify symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as feelings of worry, recurring thoughts and nightmares, Singh said.
During the 2000s, wildfires quadrupled and tripled in frequency compared to those of the previous two decades. For the natural disaster capable of scorching millions of acres and smoldering for weeks, its seasons have lengthened by months since the 1970s.
In Arizona, two fires currently burning north of Flagstaff have forced 2,500 home evacuations this weekand Coconino County, where Mercy Care operates, declared states of emergency. The larger of the two fires has already burned over 38 square miles and a little over a quarter is content.
Increased severity and frequency of wildfires add to a mental health care system already tense in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Resilience and vulnerable populations
A study published in March measured people’s resilience to a wildfire that tore through Canada five years ago, one of the worst in the country’s history. write in Behavioral sciencesthe authors found that those who lived through the Fort McMurray fire exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that this factor, along with age, were strong predictors of low resilience.
“Our study suggests that the only modifiable risk factor for low resilience five years after wildfires is the likely presence of PTSD. Thus, expanding the scope of treatment interventions for people with PTSD and other stress-related conditions will potentially improve the resilience of victims following wildfire disasters,” they said.
Other studies have shown an increase in suicide rates in the months and years following a natural disaster.
A more recent investigation assessment of cumulative trauma among residents of Fort McMurray concluded that mitigating climate change-related natural disasters could help improve the mental health burden experienced by vulnerable populations, while researchers highlighted the importance to deploy mental health resources to support these communities.
Arizona is home to a large Native American population, a group that has traditionally suffered from rising rates of poverty and chronic disease due to systemic underinvestment, putting them at higher risk of poor health outcomes from wildfires.
In the northern part of Arizona, “where we’ve seen more wildfires, there’s been significant disruption with the Native American communities there,” Singh said, noting that the disasters create an “additional burden ” for the population.
Studies examining the effects of climate change on the health of Native Americans are relatively rare. However, a survey published in 2021 found that Alaska Natives were more likely than non-Natives to visit the emergency department after exposure to wildfire smoke.
While first responders may be more accustomed to life-threatening situations than the general public, their mental health is also a priority for Singh, as well as those who may have underlying mental health issues or related disorders. to substance use.
A 2019 survey revealed those fighting wildfires reported persistent depression and anxiety, while almost 40% knew a colleague who had committed suicide.
“I would bet that half of our employees have suicidal ideation right now, and half of them have a plan to do it,” California Fire Captain Mike Orton said recently. told the nonprofit Calmatters Newsroom.
In Arizona, more than 2 million residents are covered by the Medicaid programwhich has been associated with a deceleration in suicide rates.
“The only good news is in Arizona, the Medicaid system is quite robust,” Singh said, adding that there are significant resources available to support access to mental health care for citizens.
But regardless of the status of insurance coverage, wildfire survivors also face destroyed or damaged infrastructure that can hamper community outreach. Limited social support can also make mental health problems worse. To combat this isolation, Mercy Care is proactively tracking wildfires in the state and reaching out to local members to ensure access to resources.
As forecasters predict another scorching U.S. wildfire season and nationwide temperatures continue to climb, engagement with communities at risk from wildfires remains critical to mitigation efforts .
“I just want to make sure those affected are still taking care of themselves,” Singh said. “Ensuring that, especially in this era of the 24/7 news cycle, people are not just constantly watching news about a disaster and then re-traumatizing themselves. ”
Connecting emotionally with others and establishing an exercise routine and healthy eating can all serve as protective measures in times of crisis.
For those who may be in distress as a result of a natural or man-made disaster, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration direct line is available at 1-800-985-5990.
Posted on June 17, 2022