Mental issues from Fort McMurray fire linger but human contact helps: study

The wildfire scorched the Alberta city in 2016

The immense wildfire that scorched Fort McMurray in 2016 may have blackened more than homes.

Newly published research suggests the fire cast a lasting shadow over the lives of many residents who are still experiencing elevated rates of depression and related mental-health problems.

“There’s been a big jump,” said Vincent Agyapong, a psychiatrist and University of Alberta professor whose paper was published Saturday in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addictions.

But the research also revealed a way to help dispel the darkness.

Agyapong was working in Fort McMurray when the fire that came to be known as “The Beast” hit the city that May. He helped patients in the hospital get to safety before fleeing himself.

When he returned to his clinical practice in the city, after the immediate chaos subsided, he realized he had a chance to learn something about resilience.

“We thought it was an opportune time to change the focus to actually looking at the mental-health impacts of the Fort McMurray wildfire,” he said.

Agyapong and his colleagues developed an extensive survey that included questions about age, employment, where people were before the fire, how exposed they were, how much media they followed and their clinical history.

VIDEO: Develop a personal wildfire plan, B.C. fire chief says

The team received 486 completed responses.

Previously reported results found the rate of probable post-traumatic stress disorder was 12.8 per cent — more than 10 times the normal rate for Alberta.

Agyapong’s research used standard psychiatric tests to conclude the fire correlated to a much broader set of problems.

The survey found that six months after flames tore through parts of the city, almost 15 per cent of respondents were suffering from some type of major depressive disorder. The rate was 17 per cent for women and 10 per cent for men. The average Alberta rate is 3.3 per cent.

Those disorders were also associated with substance abuse.

“We found that those that presented with (depressive disorder) were far more likely to present with alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder as well as nicotine dependence,” Agyapong said.

The survey found those with depression symptoms were roughly twice as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Preliminary results from further studies suggest those problems persist.

The researchers surveyed people who were visiting a health-care facility for any reason in November 2017, 18 months after the fire. Nearly one-quarter of respondents met the criteria for anxiety disorders and over 13 per cent for PTSD.

Agyapong cautioned that the data from that survey hasn’t been published and isn’t comparable to the previous survey. Still, he suggests that if one-quarter of people seeing their family doctor have a major depressive disorder, “that’s a huge proportion.”

“We found out 15 per cent fulfil the criteria for an alcohol use disorder and nine per cent fulfil the criteria for a substance abuse disorder. These are large numbers that we cannot just discount.”

Agyapong’s study also looked at what kept people resilient and protected them. The biggest single factor was human contact and support.

“Those who reported they received no support were about 13 times more likely to present with a major depressive disorder compared to those who reported they received high levels of support.

Emotional and social support as simple as a phone call were more important than material support from governments or the Red Cross, Agyapong found. It even helped with the loss of a home or business.

“Receiving support from family and friends can actually protect you from possible major depressive disorder,” Agyapong said.

Alberta Health Services says there has been more demand for mental-health services since the fire. The agency has responded by making more counsellors and clinical support workers available to the community.

Although it doesn’t have before-and-after numbers, the department reports having 51,084 client “contacts” about mental health between May 10, 2016, and June 30, 2018. Alberta Health still averages more than 1,200 visits a month to community addiction and mental-health services in Fort McMurray.

“Wildfire disasters are associated with a negative impact on the mental and physical health of those affected and those effects can be delayed in onset and can persist over several years,” said spokeswoman Kirsten Goruk. “Recovery takes time and some residents are still in various stages of recovery.”

Agyapong said the survey has implications for any community that suffers a disaster.

“It’s important for the community to pull together and for family members, friends, and relatives of people to actually reach out to them on the phone and offer every practical help that they can be able to offer.

“It’s not just help in the moment. It’s also help that’s going to protect their mental health down the line.”

READ MORE: Fire, smoke fill Saint John sky after oil refinery blast: ‘My whole house shook’

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Blaze takes commercial building in Louis Creek Industrial Park

Firefighters, paramedics and RCMP from Barriere and Chu Chua were on scene

Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Sept. 27 to Oct. 3

World Farm Animals Day, Drink Beer Day and Virus Appreciation Day are all coming up this week

Two new COVID-19 cases reported in Interior Health

The total number of Interior Health cases since the beginning of the pandemic is now at 522

Bear sightings continue in District of Clearwater

One bear was seen taking a lounge in a resident’s backyard

Orange Shirt Day

To the Editor, Since May, 2013, in British Columbia when Orange Shirt… Continue reading

B.C. records 98 more COVID-19 cases, most in Lower Mainland

One new senior home outbreak, Surrey Memorial outbreak over

PHOTOS: 2nd calf in a month confirmed among Southern Resident killer whale pod

Center for Whale Research said they will eagerly await to observe the calf to evaluate its health

97 distressed horses, cats and dogs seized from farm in Princeton

RCMP assisted as BC SPCA executed search warrant

$250K reward offered as investigation continues into Sea to Sky Gondola vandalism

Police also asking for specific footage of Sea to Sky highway around time of incident

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Trudeau ‘disappointed’ by RCMP treatment of Sikh officers over mask issue

World Sikh Organization of Canada said taking Sikh officers off the front lines constitutes discrimination

Liberals reach deal with NDP on COVID-19 aid bill, likely averting election

NDP and the Liberals have reached an agreement on COVID-19 sick-leave

Money laundering inquiry delayed over of B.C. election: commissioner

Austin Cullen says the hearings will start again on Oct. 26

Most Read