Wildfires can result in anxiety even for people who are hundreds of kilometres away, as smoke alters the air we breathe and the sunsets we see at night. The Globe spoke to Dr. Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, about how to manage stress and anxiety related to wildfires and climate change.
What do we know about how this summer’s wildfire smoke is affecting people’s mental health?
I think the sight of this wildfire smoke has become a a reminder of this sort of existential threat we face with climate change. So you’ve got this background level of concern. And then you get a discrete event, like wildfire plumes, and that amplifies people’s worries.
Let’s talk about what people can do about it. Any tips?
With regard to mental health, people should look for red flags. If you’re not sleeping, you’re worrying all the time, you’re irritable, you’re eating more, you’re shopping online more, you’re drinking more – those are red flags that it would be a good idea to look at your mental health, and try to do something about it.
So what kinds of things might people consider?
Having a sense of control is important. If people feel that they’re in an uncontrollable world, they tend to get very anxious. So one idea is to develop a personal action plan for doing your little bit about climate change. It may not seem like much, but collectively these things can have an impact. And stress management. Filter your dose of alarming media. We all need to stay informed, but you don’t need to be absorbed in it 24/7.
One thing many of us did during the COVID pandemic to help our mental health was to go outside. Wildfire smoke can make that difficult. How do we deal with that?
One of the predictors of protests and riots during the pandemic was this kind of ‘catch and release’ lockdown. People’s patience only goes so far. When you draw out those frustrations, it’s more likely that people’s mental health will deteriorate. They’ll get irritable, angry and will protest. Now we’re seeing something similar – we’ve just come out of this pandemic with its lockdowns. And now we’re being told you can’t go outside for a different reason. So, yes, this is going to be very challenging for people, and frustrating. But I guess what we can do is remind ourselves that this will be time-limited during the worst of the fires. And then we’ll be back getting outside.
What about talking to kids? What do you say when they ask you why the sky is orange or why they can’t go play outside?
It depends on the developmental age of the child. If you dump a whole lot of scary information on kids and there’s nothing they can do about it, they’re going to feel scared and helpless. I like the idea of short, accurate statements – “Well, the sky’s orange because of wildfires, and hopefully they will be done soon.” And it’s important to listen to your kids. Don’t assume that you know what they’re thinking, because you might be way off base unless you check in with them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.