U of A researchers develop program to help teens cope with mass trauma

University of Alberta researchers have developed a program to help junior high students recover from the psychological impacts of traumatizing events, such as the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. 

Tools developed after study showed lingering impacts of Fort McMurray wildfire on mental health

University of Alberta researchers have developed a program to help teenagers recover from traumatic events, such as the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. (Terry Reith/CBC)

This story is part of the World on Fire series, a five-part podcast that takes us to the front lines of out-of-control wildfires in Canada, Australia and California. Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, each episode examines what it takes to find hope in the midst of fear and destruction. Wildfires cost us our health, our homes and our communities, yet people everywhere rebuild and not just survive — but thrive. 

University of Alberta researchers have developed a program to help junior high students recover from the psychological impacts of traumatizing events like the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. 

The massive fire forced almost 90,000 people from their homes four years ago, leaving a lasting impact on many residents. 

The researchers surveyed more than 3,000 junior and high school students about their mental health 18 months after the fire.

They found that 37 per cent of students showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The rates were similar in follow-up surveys conducted one and two years later, said Hannah Pazderka, researcher in the department of psychiatry at the U of A.

"The shocking thing that we're really seeing is that those rates aren't budging," Pazderka said. "We still see high rates of PTSD in kids who experienced this back in 2016."

Hannah Pazderka says Fort McMurray residents went through a mass trauma during the 2016 wildfire and evacuation. (Supplied by Hannah Pazderka)

The research team responded by developing a program for junior high students to help them cope with trauma. It consists of lessons and exercises that can be integrated into the classroom.

The program can also be used in other situations that cause trauma, such as natural disasters or mass shootings, said Pazderka. 

The content has already been adapted to help teenagers deal with the impacts of the current pandemic. 

"Everybody is being affected by these traumatic events," Pazderka said. "That's exactly what we're trying to do, is create a process which can meet the needs of students in any of those situations."

Mass traumatization

The U of A program is based on trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy, said Pazderka.

The goal of the therapy is to reframe the negative thoughts that are brought on by various triggers, she said.

"It's almost a move from sort of seeing themselves as the victim to sort of saying, 'OK, well, this is something that I went through and maybe that actually made me stronger in some ways.'" 

The tools are adapted for mass traumatization, when a group of people share a collective negative experience. 

Children experience mass trauma differently than adults because they have no control over the situation, said Pazderka.

"Kids are stuck doing whatever their parents decide is going to happen, and in a way that makes it even more stressful for them. Because they don't have the opportunity to make decisions and act on them."

One way of overcoming mass traumatization is to talk about it with others who have lived through it, she said. 

"They have kind of a shared history, and in some ways that can be a source of strength. It's about teaching them to trust one another."

Contagion effect 

The research team also found high rates of PTSD symptoms among children who moved to Fort McMurray after the 2016 fire. 

"It's almost like there's a contagion," Pazderka said. "The school community was so shocked by the speed and the violence of what had happened."

Fort McMurray families weren't able to recover from the wildfire before experiencing more hardships, she said, such as the economic downturn, flooding and the current pandemic. 

That can lead to a mental state referred to as hypervigilance, said Pazderka.

"You have to get to this place where you're like, 'OK, it's safe to let down my guard, I can trust that everything's OK,'" she said. "That really hasn't happened."

That's why the program is designed to help children feel hopeful about the future, Pazderka said.

"With these kinds of climate events happening more and more often, that's something that we're going to need as a society to come to grips with, to help kids who are growing up deal and find ways to cope."


Josee St-Onge


Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan.