British Columbia

Mental health concerns raised as early wildfires spark renewed anxiety in tinder-dry B.C.

Amid wildfires, droughts, and severe storms, a B.C. physician calls on family doctors to help patients suffering from the mental health impacts of climate change in an article recently published in the B.C. Medical Journal.

BC Medical Journal article states climate change is raising anxiety and compromising mental health

An aerial bomber drops fire retardant near the Lejac wildfire, 200 kilometres west of Prince George on May 10th. (Supplied by David Luggi)

A dramatically early start to B.C.'s wildfire season is triggering anxiety and fear among some people who lived through last summer's fire evacuations. 

Julie Daum and her family spent a month last summer under evacuation alert at their home in Stellako, about 200 kilometres west of Prince George.  For weeks, as the giant Shovel Lake Fire burned closer and closer, Daum was on edge, ready to leave her smoke-filled house with 30 minutes notice.

"I'd wake up a few times in the night," said Daum, "sure the fire was right outside because there was so much smoke." 

The fast growing Lejac wildfire triggered memories of last summer's Shovel Lake fire. 'I could hear the planes and the choppers and the smoke ... I just felt the anxiety and fear that I had last summer,' said Julie Daum. (Supplied by David Luggi)

'The anxiety and fear...came back to me'

Then, last weekend, Daum watched a wildfire blow up near a gas station at Lejac, owned by her daughter's fiance and his family. 

"I could hear the planes and choppers and smell the smoke," she said. "I felt all the anxiety and fear I had last summer, which I thought I was dealing with OK. It just came back to me. It was just a physical reaction of starting to shake and cry."

The Lejac fire is now mostly contained, but feelings like Daum experienced are becoming more common, according to a B.C. physician. 

Dr. Elizabeth Wiley says family doctors need to step up to help patients suffering from the mental health impacts of climate change.

It's the focus of  Wiley's article, "The unseen impacts of climate change on mental health," published this month in the B.C. Medical Journal.

Dr. Elizabeth Wiley says amidst wildfires, drought and storms, anxiety is becoming a predominant concern for patients. She says family doctors need to understand the mental health impacts of climate change. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Wiley has worked in Northern B.C. during the wildfires and on Vancouver Island during damaging storms.

She says anxiety and fear are becoming "more predominant concerns" among patients. 

"For physicians and other health-care providers, the mental health effects of climate change will undoubtedly continue to affect our patients, our practices, and our communities for years to come," Wiley wrote, noting that the problems often go unrecognized or under-appreciated. 

In Langford, on Vancouver Island, where Wiley works, she's seen the impacts of "severe storms." 

Severe storm knocked out urgent care clinic 

"We've had a couple of instances where our urgent care centre has lost power," Wiley said in an interview with CBC . "So we've had to close and we're sort of scrambling to make sure that patients can get the care they need. The severity of storms ... really affects our ability to serve patients." 

Wiley has also worked in Northern B.C. during the wildfires.  She recalled the day last summer when wildfire smoke blocked the sun in Prince George.

Dr. Elizabeth Wiley posted this image to Facebook last summer, on the day that wildfire smoke darkened the city during daylight. (Dr. Elizabeth Wiley/contributed )

"It was extraordinary. The sky was black until noon.," said Wiley, who was seeing patients that day in a clinic near the hospital. "It was anxiety provoking for everyone. Uncertainty. Are the fires coming? What's going to happen? And you know, certainly seeing patients during that time, I mean the anxiety is palpable."

'The anxiety is palpable'

In the clinic, she also saw patients who'd been forced from their homes and evacuated to Prince George because of wildfires. She said evacuees worried about losing their homes and livelihoods.

Wiley's concern for the mental health effects of climate change have been echoed by other professionals and highlighted by the prestigious medical journal, the Lancet. 

But Wiley wants frontline family doctors to take heed and prepare for what's coming.

"When patients start to present to us with either conditions that are caused or exacerbated by climate change I think it would be irresponsible for us to not acknowledge and address the cause of those concerns. I feel that it is in our lane," said Wiley.

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener is an award-winning journalist and author. She's been covering the news in central and northern British Columbia for more than 15 years.


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