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How natural disasters can create long-lasting trauma

The Canadian wildfire season began intensely, with fires in eight provinces and one territory forcing thousands of people to flee their homes, not knowing when or whether they would ever return.

For these survivors, it can be difficult to navigate the after-effects of living through traumatic events, explains professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University, Vincent Agyapong.

Agyapong says that people who live through a traumatic moment like a natural disaster can experience a range of intense emotions that can stay with them throughout their life, and could even develop into a mental health disorder like anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The immediate reaction is people feeling very numb, people feeling very anxious, people feeling very tense, people having a sense of disbelief," he told CTV's Your Morning on Friday.

"People go into a state of panic, having panic attacks and it sometimes leads to sleepless nights, it leads to long-term psychological effects, including anxiety disorders, adjustment disorders and major depressive disorders and in some cases, post traumatic stress disorder."

In 2016, Agyapong led a study that surveyed survivors of the wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alta. where 90,000 residents were displaced as 580,000 hectares burned. The survey found, six months after the disaster, nearly 15 per cent of respondents were suffering from some type of major depressive disorder. Additionally, the survey found respondents with depressive symptoms were more likely to experience substance abuse.

The survey also found that people who didn't seek mental health support after the wildfires were 13 times more likely to have a major depressive disorder.

Survivors not receiving mental health support is a concern Agyapong still has, as he says during an emergency mental health counsellors can already be overloaded with work or have been impacted themselves by the disaster.

"Sometimes, some of the healthcare workforce within mental health for themselves are impacted, so at a time where you actually need more people to actually support the population, you actually have a reduction in your workforce. So it's important for governments to build alternate solutions," he said.

Agyapong explains additional help could include more online mental health resources or promotional campaigns to help boost morale and show support to people affected.

Alberta's mental health texting support program is also available to residents in the area if they need it, texting HOPEAB to 393939.

With files from The Canadian Press


If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources that are available.

Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)

Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)

Hope for Wellness Helpline (English, French, Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut): 1-855-242-3310

Embrace Life Council hotline: 1-800-265-3333

Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868)

If you need immediate assistance call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. Top Stories

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