Janet Caines-Olsen still has a difficult time talking about the unimaginable destruction of the wildfires that hit her hometown on May 3, 2016, forcing over 80,000 people from their homes.
“I know I’m traumatized just from the way I feel,” she says, her voice cracking.
After fleeing the city with only a few belongings in the backseat of her truck, Caines-Olsen has been left with far more than the bad memories. Just a couple of months after leaving the city she has called home for 17 years, Caines-Olsen was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
She recalls feeling anxious, experiencing panic attacks, and being hypervigilant, jumping at the slightest of sounds. She also remembers feeling terrified of losing what she had left.
“The few things I had were in my vehicle. And I just kept locking my vehicle all the time to make sure it was locked so I wouldn’t lose that stuff.”
Caines-Olsen isn’t alone in dealing with mental health struggles after experiencing an unexpected and traumatic event.
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According to a study conducted by the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters on the impact Slave Lake’s 2011 wildfire had on youth, about 34 per cent of students evaluated six months after the fire showed a likelihood of either partial or full diagnoses of PTSD.
In a preliminary study on PTSD symptoms in 379 Fort McMurray evacuees, 60 per cent of online respondents reported significant post-traumatic stress symptoms. Clinical psychologist and head of the study, Geneviève Belleville, says that a more in-depth study is set to begin this May - the one year anniversary of the fire - and will proceed for the next two years.
“It’s hard to compare these results to others that have been previously published because they were collected so soon after the disaster. Some of our participants had not yet returned home so of course they were still in tremendous stress.”
Dr. Sandra Corbett, the northern region’s chief of psychiatry, notes the significant increase in the demand for mental health assistance, with more than 24,000 people in Fort McMurray reaching out for mental health support between May and September alone. She points out that many of the residents of Fort McMurray weren’t even fully back home at the time, so the requests for help primarily came from first responders and those trickling into town after the return dates in June.
“We’re certainly seeing an increase in referrals. We’ve been really busy in our inpatient unit which has been practically full or overfull since we’ve come back. Lots of referrals from family physicians, lots of new referrals,” says Corbett. “We know from previous disasters that people who’ve already had psychiatric assistance and mental health issues are more vulnerable to be affected by the fires so we’re seeing that too.”
Cal Hurley was one of the lucky ones who didn’t lose their home – so people tell him. “We say that we just wish it burned,” admits Hurley.
Although his home in the Abasand neighbourhood remained standing, dealing with insurance companies and having to tear apart much of the home due to smoke damage has caused considerable stress for the Hurley family.
“They have this thing – Fort McMurray strong. I say Fort McMurray frustrated,” says Hurley.
Those feeling the stress of post-fire life are being provided with additional mental health services in the community. Sheldon Germain, vice principal of Holy Trinity Catholic high school and city councillor in Fort McMurray, says that mental health is a main priority for the city. He says that it began with a program called sifting.
Germain says the number of people accessing mental health services is good news.
“I think that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard,” he says. “If you’re strong and you need help, you have the courage and strength to ask. And in Fort McMurray we are strong and we’re asking for help and they’re getting access to it.”
Viola Hynes is just one of the thousands who have reached out for professional mental health assistance. After losing her home of 12 years in the Fort McMurray fire, Hynes says that she hasn’t felt like herself since the fire.
“I don’t really joke around as much anymore. I used to be a lot more carefree but now I always feel anxious, like something is wrong even when it’s not,” says Hynes.
Shortly after evacuating the community, Hynes reached out for help while in Edmonton. She has since continued to occasionally visit a mental health professional, noting that it helps to talk to someone.
Even with the additional resources provided to members of the community, some don’t feel as comfortable reaching out for help when needed.
Darby Melnyk, 19, was lucky enough to come back to her home still intact, but something didn’t feel right to her. She says she began experiencing separation anxiety, an onset as a result of being separated from family and friends during the evacuation and the months before returning home. Despite dealing with separation anxiety, Melnyk did not reach out for professional help.
“I didn’t feel worthy of help. I still had a home – a lot of people did not. It seemed silly of me to feel this way when I had nothing to be upset over.”
Corbett says it’s not uncommon for people to feel unworthy of help in times of need, noting that everyone deals with grief differently.
“You shouldn’t feel guilty even though you may not have experienced loss – even though you may not have seen things and thought you were about to die,” says Corbett. “If it’s impacting you it is important to go and talk to someone about that and have your needs met.”
Hurley believes the demand for mental health assistance will continue to grow, and notes that suicide may become an issue due to the overwhelming stresses for those who lost their homes and even those who have not.
“Unfortunately yes, that’s what we know and obviously what we are trying to prevent,” adds Corbett.
People will take time to heal and that finding a balance again is going to be a struggle, says Germain.
“It’s not just the people who lost their homes – all of us lost our homes for a while, all of us were evacuated, and all of us have a story from May 3 that’s going to be lasting.”
Caines-Olsen knows that if people don’t get the help they need, it will affect not only them, but their families negatively in the long-term.
“I have friends who say to me , ‘how I’m coping with this is two bottles of wine a night.’ Is that healthy? I don’t think so. But people will do what they have to do in order to get through. You know, that’s just reality. But what are the long-term effects of that? It’s two bottles this week – what’s it going to be next week and the week after?"
- By Karina Yaceyko, Ashley King