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Wildfire Leaves Fort McMurray with Higher Rates of Depression, Substance Abuse, PTSD

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A paper in an international journal is pointing to increased rates of depression and related mental health problems in Fort McMurray, almost exactly 2½ years after a ferocious wildfire nicknamed “The Beast” tore through the town and forced the entire population to evacuate.

The paper in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction “suggests the fire cast a lasting shadow over the lives of many residents,” CBC reports. “But the research also revealed a way to help dispel the darkness.

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Vincent Agyapong, the psychiatrist and University of Alberta professor who produced the study, was in Fort Mac when the fire hit. He assisted patients at the local hospital before evacuating 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,” CBC states. A previous study had placed the rate of probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of 12.8%, far above the provincial average.

Six months after the fire, the survey found that nearly 15% of respondents—17% of women and 10% of men, compared to a province-wide rate of 3.3%—had some kind of major depressive disorder.

As well, “we found that those who presented with (depressive disorder) were far more likely to present with alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder, as well as nicotine dependence,” Agyapong told CP. “We found out 15% fulfill 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.”

The study pinpointed human contact and support as the most important factor in protecting people from depression and keeping them resilient. “Receiving support from family and friends can actually protect you from possible major depressive disorder,” Agyapong said.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.

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

Alberta Health spokesperson Kirsten Goruk agreed that “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.” She added that “recovery takes time, and some residents are still in various stages of recovery.”