This summer, thousands of British Columbians have grappled with the stress associated with forest fires that not only cause evacuations, but even the destruction of homes.
As head of the Disaster and Emergency Management program at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Robin Cox has an academic sense of how such natural disasters affect individuals and communities.
Ms. Cox, who has a PhD in counselling psychology from the University of British Columbia, has researched the experiences and recovery of residents affected by the devastating 2003 McLure-Barriere forest fire in the southwestern part of the province, which destroyed more than 70 B.C. homes and a sawmill that was the region's biggest employer. Her other academic work has focused on disaster recovery and resilience, with a particular interest in youth.
Ms. Cox spoke with The Globe and Mail about the stresses some may be facing this summer and offers suggestions for coping.
How does stress manifest itself during forest fires?
Whether you're on evacuation alert or have to evacuate, you're afraid. The uncertainty itself and not knowing is often what people highlight as the most stressful experience. People often have more symptoms of anxiety. They may not sleep well. Children often regress so you'll see behaviours consistent with when they were younger. Some people have pretty effective coping mechanisms; some don't. Some cope by being very optimistic and moving into action quickly. Some cope by retreating, withdrawing and avoiding things.
What we know about stress and effective coping, in the disaster context, is there is no one way to manage and no one manifestation of it. What we do know about effective coping is the sooner people can get into having some sense of control over their lives by doing things, the better for them.
For people who have lost homes, and or businesses, that process is obviously much more complicated. It's not only the physical structure and financial side. There's also a symbolic loss. Homes are a huge part of our identity and how we know ourselves.
Are there any things in the research in this area that surprise you?
What did surprise me [about the McLure fire] is how extensive the impacts are. There's an assumption that if people haven't directly lost anything, they're not impacted. But it becomes clear quickly, and research supports this, that that's not true. If a community is impacted, you have lost something. The community is changed and that's an adjustment. The social network you built up in a community can change as a result of fire. And there's the loss of a sense of safety.
As a psychologist, what would you say about the dynamics as people wait to see if a fire will force evacuation?
Some people will do a lot of preparation to get ready to evacuate. Some avoid things as a coping strategy. Uncertainty is something not many of us are comfortable with. So uncertainty is often experienced as very stressful. It can also mean shorter fuses and more of a tendency for conflict and anger. Children will often pick up on the energy of their caregivers so if they're noticing uncertainty, fear, stress, they're going to be responding to that as well.
What advice would you offer people amidst these fire situations, evacuation alerts, about managing stress and mental health?
Be aware of it and normalize it. People often talk about feeling like they were going crazy. Recognize that, for most people, uncertainty is stressful. Fear is stressful. Practice good self care. Are there other areas in your life where you can reduce expectations in terms of activities you would normally do? It may be, 'I normally keep a really super-clean home, but right now that's going to be less of a priority. I'm going to let myself off the hook on that a little bit.' You're not typically involved in fighting the fire. Finding ways to re-establish agency and control by having a plan, talking it out and alleviating stress where you can; recognizing it's there and taking care of yourself, whatever that looks like for you.
What about after the situation is over when the evacuation is over and damage has been done?
It's going to depend on the scenario you're involved in. Recognize that everybody deals with these situations a little bit differently. Give yourself permission to grieve if there's something to grieve for, whether a home or whatever. Hopefully not a person. Recognize recovery takes time for individual households and the community. People may recover in very different ways at very different paces.
When do you know you need professional help?
In terms of psychological support, there's no one right answer. If you are feeling overwhelmed and you don't have other supports to reach out to like informal family or friends, it can help to reach out to professionals.
What is the risk if some of these mental health issues are not dealt with?
When anything like that is unacknowledged or not managed well, it will manifest itself in behaviours or an inability to concentrate, feeling like you can't function. You might have a chronic health condition that is worsened. Unaddressed, these things will both exacerbate pre-existing conditions and can contribute to overall loss in the way we would normally see ourselves functioning.
This interview has been edited and condensed.