Canada – Sithara Fernando convinced herself and everyone else she was OK after the Fort McMurray wildfire.
Almost a year later, she now knows she clearly wasn’t.
Once, when she saw the orange-and-purple canvas of a sunset, it looked like an inferno, as if the city was on fire again.
The first snowfall of the season brought on a flashback of the day when ash from one of Alberta’s largest forest fires fell from the sky.
“I remember being, like, that was weird,” Fernando said. “Maybe I didn’t see that. That’s OK. It’s fine.”
Fort McMurray wildfire PTSD studies ready to begin with $1M grant A year of mental health challenges after the Fort McMurray wildfire
It wasn’t fine. And Fernando wasn’t alone.
Preliminary findings from an as-yet unpublished study suggest that Fort McMurray’s likely rate of post-traumatic stress disorder skyrocketed to 12.8 per cent of the overall population six months after the wildfire.
That figure breaks down to 15 per cent of females surveyed, and nine per cent of males.
The PTSD rate before the wildfire was less than one per cent, the study found.
In Fernando’s case, when she couldn’t sleep and had recurring nightmares about the fire, she finally saw a psychologist and was diagnosed with PTSD.
“It was like, if I cannot have flashbacks and I can go back to sleep and sleep normally, everything was going to be OK.” ‘That whole day is foggy to me’
Lurking deeper in her post-wildfire mental health struggles were Fernando’s inability to reconcile her sexual orientation, something she had hidden for years, and the pride that always stopped her from asking for help.
Everything came to a head in January, the day she got into her car and drove in a zombie-like state from Edmonton to her home in Fort McMurray, intending to shoot herself.
“That whole day is foggy to me,
” said Fernando, a wildlife biologist who uses firearms in her fieldwork. “And it is really, really scary that I can lose so much control.”
For some reason, before she tried to take her own life, Fernando stopped at a friend’s house and spilled what she was about to do.
She was immediately hospitalized.
Her story is just one example of what can happen when people with underlying mental health issues, people who lack family and friends supports, experience significant stress.
The Fort McMurray wildfire triggered Alberta’s largest evacuation ever. More than 80,000 people fled the city as trees exploded and flames raged through neighbourhoods, eventually destroying over 2,400 homes and buildings.
Many of those homes are being rebuilt this spring, but new research indicates one of the fire’s biggest remaining casualties may be the mental health of residents.
Vincent Agyapong was principal researcher on the PTSD study, funded by the University of Alberta’s psychology department. He is preparing to publish the findings in an academic journal.
The conclusions are so revealing the Canadian Institute for Health Research awarded Agyapong and other researchers a $500,000 grant to further study the impact of PTSD on Fort McMurray’s younger population.
During their work, researchers found that residents with histories of anxiety disorders were eight times more likely to present PTSD symptoms six months after the wildfire.
Those with no family and friends supports were nine times more likely.
“So, the take-home message from our research, which is quite interesting, is we have been able to establish that after an event like this it is very important for communities to rally around each other,” Agyapong said.
That didn’t happen in Fernando’s case. She said she didn’t tell family and friends she needed help. She remembers evacuating to Edmonton during the wildfire and telling everyone she was OK.
While Fernando has not been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, she has been diagnosed with a pre-existing personality disorder that wasn’t addressed until after she was hospitalized.
Her disorder, she said, stems from a lack of self-confidence and suppressing a secret that she is a lesbian.
“A lot of my life had been built around trying to hide my sexuality,” she said.
Mental health supports needed for years
A year after the wildfire, the city and region still has a long way to go, said Dr. Sandra Corbett.
Chief of psychiatry for Alberta Health Services north zone, Corbett said her staff has been much busier since the wildfire.
Staff had 29,000 addictions and mental health contacts between the time of the wildfire and the end of March. That’s up dramatically from previous years, when they generally have about 1,000 contacts during an entire year.
“We know that the community is not going to recover fully for several years,” Corbett said. “So it is just as important that we continue to have the support that we have now.”
Corbett, who also participated in the PTSD study, said she has seen a spike in people presenting symptoms of grief and loss, depression and anxiety.
Though said suicide rates have not increased, she said she has seen more patients contemplating ending their lives.
Fernando now keeps her guns at home. She is taking therapy to help rebuild her sense of self.
While the wildfire has been devastating for many, in Fernando’s case it forced her to confront issues she had avoided for years.
“For me, I got lucky, in that there was a fire and that stresser got pushed,” she said. “This breakdown happens at some point in time.”
She has also started a blog to document and share her experiences, in hopes of helping others.