British Columbia

As B.C. bakes and burns, residents say their climate anxiety is peaking

Experts say the destruction of Lytton will have mental health ramifications across B.C.

Experts say the destruction of Lytton will have mental health ramifications across B.C.

A man carrying multiple jugs of water walks through a sprinkler during a period of record breaking temperatures in Vancouver on June 29. While temperatures in Vancouver were generally in the 30s, Inland temperatures rose well above 40 C and almost 50 C in the Village of Lytton. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The end of June should have been a happy turning point in B.C., with the province lifting a 15-month state of emergency and loosening pandemic restrictions.

Instead, residents of the province were emerging from days of record-breaking heat that saw 719 people die suddenly and wildfires flare as temperatures inland rose above 40 C. Then, on Wednesday evening, the town of Lytton was destroyed by fire in a matter of minutes a day after reaching an all-time Canadian record of 49.6 C.

Matt Aquin, 30, who lives in Maple Ridge, said he felt his anxiety rise as he watched the news and tried to stay cool. 

"It's an overwhelming sense of existential dread. I'd be lying if I was saying I was dealing with it healthily. How soon are these once-in-a-lifetime events going to start happening every year?" he said.

Lanika Yule of Mission said she struggled to focus on tasks, worried about the health ramifications of the wildfire smoke, and felt frustrated that politicians weren't acting more urgently.

"It feels absolutely silly to be worrying about work emails when hundreds of people just died during the heat wave and an entire town was burned to the ground in minutes," she wrote in an email.

Climate anxiety refers to feelings of grief, stress and hopelessness about the long-term impacts of climate change, according to a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association. Christine Korol, a registered psychologist and director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre, said she's noted an increase in people seeking help to deal with anxiety related to the climate in recent years.

A couple cuddle on rocks while surrounded by wildfire smoke from the United States on Sept. 18, 2020. B.C. residents have dealt with wildfire smoke for several summers in a row. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

She said the heat dome made homes, which have been refuges from the pandemic for more than a year, unbearably hot. That creates visceral anxiety for many people as they fear for the health of their loved ones and pets.

"The thing that increases anxiety in those moments is just the physical discomfort from the heat wave — that creates a lot of physical symptoms and when you're uncomfortable, then you're more likely to to notice the physical symptoms of anxiety as well — so people are really struggling," she said.

"And then there's the long-term uncertainty. Not knowing how bad it's going to get and imagining all these worst-case scenarios."

'Red flags in your brain'

The mental health impacts of unprecedented weather are particularly acute for those whose lives and property have been directly threatened by flames.

Charlie Rensby, a village councillor in Burns Lake, helped manage the wildfire response in 2018 when much of his community was put under evacuation orders. He says as soon as the weather turns dry, he starts to experience flashbacks and sleepless nights.

"It just sends up red flags in your brain, like 'Oh God, I hope this doesn't happen,' " he said.

Nelly Oelke, an associate professor in the school of nursing at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, said having to flee a wildfire, or being put under evacuation alert, is a trauma-inducing event. But even people who aren't connected to a community facing a fire threat can be seriously affected, especially after living through the heat dome. 

"Those of us who just saw the footage on TV and know how challenging that must be to lose everything and have to move out of that area in such a short period of time, that will impact all of us in one way or another," she said.

Oelke is currently looking for testimonials as part of an ongoing study on how events like wildfire, smoke and flooding affect people living in rural communities, which are the most impacted by climate change and often have limited access to mental health supports.

Oelke said her research aims to identify ways to build more resilient communities prepared to deal with a future where extreme weather becomes more common.

A helicopter pilot prepares to drop water on a wildfire burning in Lytton, B.C., on July 2. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Korol said much of what is known about coping with climate anxiety is derived from treating the anxiety that follows natural disasters. And she said while it can seem insurmountable, there are coping mechanisms that can help.

"Thinking about climate anxiety should be part of our life — it shouldn't be all of our life. So if you're finding that you can't disengage, you're worrying about it 24/7, that might be a good time to call somebody for help," she said.

Korol said becoming involved in climate activism, spending time outdoors and focusing on healthy, fun relationships are key to maintaining a balanced outlook.

"Anytime we sway too far one way, we lead to ways of coping that are less helpful. If we get overwhelmed and we start tuning out, we miss too much information that may be important. If we become obsessive about it and starting ignoring the rest of our lives, that's harmful, too."

Anyone placed under an evacuation order must leave the area immediately. 

Evacuation centres have been set up throughout the province to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire. To find the centre closest to you, visit the Emergency Management BC website.

Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.

Emergency Management BC is requesting that those who know of a person who may have been in Lytton on June 30, 2021 and who cannot be accounted for, call or attend any RCMP Detachment to report that person missing.

With files from Andrew Kurjata