Fort McMurray students show PTSD symptoms after 2016 wildfire, study shows

Many students in Fort McMurray schools remained traumatized long after the massive wildfire forced almost 90,000 people from their homes three years ago.

University of Alberta study aims to develop a new program to help students recover

As Fort McMurray continues to rebuild after a massive wildfire three years ago, a new study says many students in the city still show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Many students in Fort McMurray schools remained traumatized long after a massive wildfire forced almost 90,000 people from their homes three years ago, according to a new study. 

The study from the University of Alberta found that 37 per cent of junior and senior high school students surveyed 18 months after the wildfire showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Peter Silverstone, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the U of A, said it was "very concerning" to find such a high proportion of students showing signs of PTSD.

"I really did not expect the rates of PTSD to be so high in kids so long after," said Silverstone, who worked on the study.

Another unexpected finding, he said, was that kids who moved to Fort McMurray after the May 2016 wildfire still showed higher rates of PTSD symptoms, which suggested there had been "a change in the community."

Shannon Noble, left, and Monica Mankowski knew right away that they would need to bring in extra mental health supports for students after the 2016 wildfires. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Students were surveyed in November 2017, using a series of questionnaires intended to determine whether they showed symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety. They were also asked whether they had seen the fire or not.

Matthew Brown, an adjunct professor of computing science at U of A, analyzed the survey responses from 3,070 students in grades 7 to 12. The students represented 70 per cent of the student population for that age group.

The study found that 27 per cent of students reported feeling anxious, and 31 per cent reported feelings of depression.

The numbers were compared to a study in Red Deer, 600 kilometres southwest of Fort McMurray, that also assessed students from grades 7 to 12.

The Red Deer study found that 17 per cent of students showed signs of depression, while the rate of students experiencing anxiety was similar to that found in Fort McMurray after the wildfire. 

Sixteen per cent of Fort McMurray students reported suicidal thoughts compared to four per cent of students in Red Deer.

'Negative impact' on mental health

The University of Alberta and Fort McMurray school boards are now working to build a new program to improve students' mental health. 

The new program will be monitored, and students will be surveyed again this November and in November 2020. 

Brown said the study will be important for policy-makers, who can use the information to better understand what help students need.

The study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, compared the scores of students who personally witnessed the fire and those who didn't. Students who saw the fire reported more mental health problems. 

"This confirms what we expected," Brown said. "The fire does have a negative impact on mental health."

'We've got to be careful'

Monica Mankowski, deputy superintendent for Fort McMurray Catholic Schools, said she knew immediately after the fire that it would be important to bring in more mental health support.

"We have some pretty solid stats that show our children have high rates of anxiety, depression and PTSD," she said. "We've had supports in place, but we have not been able to reduce [those rates]."

The school boards will work with the University of Alberta to bring in a new program in January for students in grades 7-9. It will focus on building resiliency. 

In September, they plan to introduce a new psychology course for students in grades 10-12. 

"We are seeing children who are more anxious, we are seeing students who have a harder time to focus," Mankowski said. "So it's more difficult to learn, of course."

Since the fire, there have been more counselors in schools. There is now a program where students wear heart monitors, so when their heart rates become elevated from stress or anxiety, they can do breathing exercises to calm themselves down.

Shannon Noble, assistant superintendent of Fort McMurray Public Schools, said there are no plans to reduce any mental health services. 

"We're pretty proud of how we bounced back, but ... we've got to be careful," she said. "We've still got some struggling families."

The region has had support from many organizations, including the Red Cross and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

"We're really proud of the work we've done with the post-fire recovery," Noble said. "We're a better school district for it."

She said families who are struggling should reach out, because there are services available.


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