Mental health referrals spike in wake of Fort McMurray fire

More than 20,000 people from Fort McMurray, Alta., have reached out for mental health services in the wake of May's devastating wildfire. That's 70 times the normal rate of those seeking help, and officials believe the demands for services will continue for a long time.

More than 20% of community seeking some sort of counselling or therapy

Sandra Legacy is getting counselling to help her get over the trauma of escaping from the flames of Fort McMurray. She doubts that she will ever be entirely free of the images that haunt her. (CBC)

Through sleepless nights, Sandra Legacy would relive her escape from Fort McMurray. Even when sleep came, the images wouldn't go away.

"The flames were very vivid in my sleep. Even talking about it now makes my stomach very nervous," she said in an interview with CBC News.

Legacy was among 90,000 people who fled the city on the afternoon of May 3, as walls of flame began licking away at homes, businesses and anything that stood in the massive wildfire's path. Many of them had to run a gauntlet of fire and escaped with only the clothes they were wearing.

Residents flee along Highway 63 as the fire hits Fort McMurray on May 3. (Terry Reith/CBC)
Now almost a quarter of the evacuees, over 20,000 people, have reached out for mental health services as they try to deal with what happened that day. Legacy is one of them.

"I just could not do my daily activities," Legacy said. "It's kind of a strange thing to say, but I was frozen by fear."

Mental health professionals say this is just the beginning. They expect more people to seek help as the enormity of what happened sinks in.

"People who were evacuated felt very uprooted," said Dr. Sandra Corbett, a psychiatrist and head of mental health services for the region. "We know there are different states in the process, of the kind of different emotions that the people go through."

Working through grief and loss

Corbett says there is an initial heroic phase, where people are just happy to have escaped. Then there's a honeymoon phase as people worldwide embrace and support the residents. The phase that's beginning now, she says, is called disillusionment, where people begin to feel their grief and loss.

"Reflecting on what happened, looking at their losses, realizing where they're at and that things are not going to be all back to normal."
A child's swing set stands among the debris in Fort McMurray's Stone Creek neighbourhood. Children are considered especially vulnerable to stresses from the disaster. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Corbett says additional counselling staff has been brought to Fort McMurray from other parts of the province. The provincial government has also opened a walk-in clinic in the downtown. Counsellors will also be on hand when schools reopen in September. Children are considered particularly vulnerable, and many were at school when the fire hit.

Officials believe the first day of school will be one of many trigger points for the community.

"We are anticipating through the agencies and through the educators that the first day of school is going to be very difficult," says Diane Shannon, head of the city's United Way, and a member of the social recovery task force. "When children return to their classrooms, and teachers too for that matter, the classrooms are going to be scrubbed completely clean. All the personality of the classrooms that you've established over a period of time, the familiarity will be removed because it was part of the restoration process."  

Several schools in the hardest hit neighbourhoods will not reopen, so many students will also face the unfamiliarity of a new school. Officials in the city still have no idea how many students to expect this fall, as many families have yet to return.

Long-term needs

Even before the city was reopened to some residents on June 1, teams of professionals had begun making plans for the long-term recovery of not just the city, but the mental health of residents. Many had first-hand experience to draw from following the 2013 floods in southern Alberta and the 2011 fire that wiped out parts of Slave Lake, Alta.

Corbett says many residents will be able to get over the anxiety of the fire through talking about their experiences, and community support. But some will have far worse experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorders. That's why she says the province is putting a three- to five-year plan in place to deal with the community's mental health needs.

But it's a huge challenge. Fort McMurray's doctors, nurses and counsellors have the same shared experience of escaping a city in flames. Now they're the ones being called on to offer that reassuring voice.

"I think that our health-care workers are themselves probably very exhausted. There is only so much that a human being is able to give," notes Legacy.

She says counselling has helped her, but doubts she will ever be entirely free of the horrifying images that haunt her. And she knows there are many others who will need extensive help in the long term. The bottom line, she says, is that there are not enough counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists to go around.

"I really do think that they need some reinforcements."


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