British Columbia

5 things to know about mental health in the face of B.C.'s wildfires

The experience of having to leave home, or worse, losing a home, because of a wildfire can cause major strain to anyone’s mental health.

Children can be particularly affected by the upheaval of an emergency evacuation

A child comforts his dog at the Kamloops reception centre for wildfire evacuees. (Lien Yeung/CBC News)

The experience of having to leave home, or worse, losing a home, because of a wildfire can cause major strain to anyone's mental health.

With blazes burning across central B.C. and 10s of thousands of people ordered to leave their communities, health officials are offering psychosocial support at evacuation reception centres in cities like Kamloops and Prince George.

To help those affected deal with the mental hardship of being displaced, deputy provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry offered some advice this weekend for identifying and dealing with stress — particularly if you have children:

1) Symptoms of stress

You might feel forgetful and confused or have a hard time concentrating. Other symptoms include an upset stomach or difficulty moving.

"People find that their blood pressure and their heart rate will go up. They can feel very tired, have a hard time concentrating," Henry said.

"These are things that are normal responses to a very abnormal situation, and, for the most part, they will settle down over time."

Evacuees and their pet arriving at a reception centre in Kamloops. (Daniel Beauparlant/CBC)

2) Preventing stress from getting out of control

The most important thing is to take care of yourself, remembering to take care of the most basic needs.

"Eating healthily may drop to the bottom of the list but making sure you do have meals and snacks, drinking plenty of water is key," Henry said.

She also suggests avoiding alcohol and caffeine, which can cause dehydration and make things worse.

Meanwhile, keep your personal relationships strong. Don't lose touch with family and friends.

3) Stress in kids

"Young children can be particularly susceptible to stress in these types of situations. It's a very confusing and frightening time for them," Henry said.

There are several obvious signs that a child is mentally suffering after having to flee home. They can include nightmares, changes in sleep and eating patterns, clinging to family members, regressing to thumbsucking or bedwetting and talking excessively about the fire situation.

Children play at the Kamloops reception centre for wildfire evacuees. (Lien Yeung/CBC )

4) How to help a distressed child

"Encourage children to talk about their feelings. It's OK to say that it's frightening and it's scary, but we're here together and we can help them," Henry said.

She suggests helping kids find the right words to describe how they're feeling and shielding them from frightening photos of the devastation caused by the wildfires.

"It's important to calmly and confidently explain the situation to children, but only give them as much information as they need to answer the questions and concerns, she said.

If it's possible, develop daily routines to keep some familiarity in their lives and try to keep the family together.

5) Where to get help

"Talk to the Red Cross, talk to the psychosocial support services that are available in the evacuation centres," Henry said.

There are also resources available through HealthLink B.C. either by checking online or by calling the 24-hour hotline at 811.