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UVic researcher calling for mental health support ahead of wildfire season

Ashley Berard studies the social impact of natural disasters
Ashley Berard, who studies the social impact of natural disasters at UVic, is calling for more mental health support for firefighters and wildfire victims ahead of B.C.’s wildfire season. (Black Press Media file photo)

A University of Victoria researcher is calling for more mental health support for firefighters and victims of wildfires ahead of what could be another severe fire season in B.C.

“It’s time to start the conversation about what the ongoing impact of climate change and wildfires is doing to people, emotionally and mentally,” said Ashley Berard, a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department, in a news release.

Berard, who is studying the social impact of natural disasters, will present findings and recommendations at the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Montreal starting 12 June.

After speaking with people who live in small rural communities and cities such as Lytton and Kamloops, she said she consistently uncovered heightened feelings of anxiety and depression, an overwhelming sense of grief and loss, and increased stress related to possible physical effects of smoke inhalation.

At the congress, Berard, along with 30 B.C. residents with lived experience of wildfires, will demonstrate what happens to people and communities when they live with the constant threat of a wildfire, and share ideas for targeting programming and supports to help them cope.

“There are people who’ve lost everything and are still living in a state of trauma and there doesn’t seem to be a clear resource path for them to get help,” said Berard, noting that of all the people she interviewed, only one person said they were seeking support through counselling. “These are people who either have, or are prepared to, flee for their lives at a moment’s notice and it’s difficult for some of them to talk about their experiences,” she said in the release.

As one of the biggest academic conferences in the country, Congress 2024 will aim to be a platform for the unveiling of thousands of research papers and presentations from social sciences and humanities experts worldwide.

Read More: Vancouver Island gets off light as first wildfire smoke drifts to the coast