'Survivor's guilt': Fort McMurray evacuees' road to recovery long, expert says
Published Friday, May 6, 2016 2:19PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, May 6, 2016 3:10PM EDT
While the current focus remains on the immediate safety and physical well-being of Fort McMurray residents displaced by wildfires, one expert in emergency management says there’s a long road ahead for their emotional and mental health recovery.
Suzanne Bernier is a certified emergency management consultant who has helped people through disasters like the 2003 SARS outbreak, Hurricane Katrina and more. She says, while many will grieve all they have lost in the fires, others who have found that all their possessions survived will feel guilt that they were spared.
“That’s one thing that sets in, pretty much from the start, that we see all the time, this survivor’s guilt,” Bernier told CTV’s Canada AM Friday from North Bay.
It is often hard for those who emerge unscathed to watch friends struggle with all they have lost, and many will find themselves asking: Why do I deserve more than others?
What’s difficult about disasters like the one in Fort McMurray, she says, is that they don’t just destroy physical things; they steal people’s sense of well-being and personal security. Even if survivors are able to one day return to their homes, almost everything from their previous lives will have changed forever.
Bernier says the good news is that there will be psychological help available in the shelters -- mental health support workers who can help people sort through their feelings, and child workers who can keep children occupied while also helping to explain what is happening to them.
So often, she said, it’s not difficult to evaluate how a community is rebuilding physically, because it can be seen, but it’s harder to gauge how people are rebuilding emotionally.
Bernier said she hopes that a good crisis response and communications plan has been put into place, and that professionals will be made available to respond to the mental health of the residents.
“Not just now during this response phase when they are all being evacuated, when they don’t know if or when they will be able to return to their properties, but also looking ahead to the recovery phase. And that could be months if not years,” she said.
Through the hardship of this crisis, she said it’s also important to remember there are so many feel-good stories going on behind the scenes that often don’t find their way into news coverage.
That includes the hundreds of firefighters, emergency workers and regular citizens who are making sacrifices to help in whatever way they can.
It’s often helpful to hear about and witness those stories in times of grief -- especially for children who may not know how to handle these new experiences.
“Teach them to look for the helpers and the heroes out there because they’re everywhere,” Bernier said.
“We see everyone coming together right now – the community residents, the first responders, the second responders – there are so many thousands of people doing amazing things right now.”
In her two decades of emergency management work, Bernier has found the good ideas can come from the people one might least expect.
“There are so many positive things that can come from enabling everyday people who can have some amazing, innovative ways to be able to help a community respond and recover after a devastation like this,” she said.