New Brunswick

Stress of floodwaters can take toll on mental health

As property owners confront the loss, damage and debris left behind by floodwaters for the second year in a row, they're also encouraged to look after their mental health.

Experts say flooding can cause anxiety, sleeplessness, sadness and even PTSD

Experts are reminding residents affected by flooding not to forget about their mental health. (Stephen MacGillivray/Canadian Press)

As property owners confront the loss, damage and debris left behind by floodwaters, they're also encouraged to look after their mental health.

Some people living along the St. John River have found it difficult to shake the stress and anxiety of trying to save their properties and personal belongings during the second major flood in two years, said Seana Creaser, an incident stress co-ordinator at the Fredericton Mental Health and Addiction Centre.

Over the past few weeks, Creaser, who is also a critical incident stress co-ordinator with Horizon Health, has seen an increased number of people relying on mental health services.

"I'm always amazed by people's resilience," she said. "Their ability to kind of pick up and start all over again, when they've been out of their home for weeks at a time, and going back to God only knows what."

We're more likely to have people turn around and get better the sooner that we get them services.- Seana Creaser

Some of referrals have come from people who themselves have been forced from home, as well as from first-responders performing wellness checks, and family members from out of province. 

Creaser also helped people in crisis during the flood of 2008.

Events such as the 2018 and 2019 floods can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

But there can be a full range of symptoms of mental health problems, including trouble sleeping, not eating well, anxiety, sadness and anger.

Individuals react in different ways

These symptoms can compound, especially if people already had mental health issues as the floodwaters began rising.  

"Everyone is so different," Creaser said in an interview with Information Morning Fredericton.

"So much of their history and their coping strategies and their ability to move forward are always so different [from] individual to individual."

Last year, the centre supported people for months after the historic floods, and it's prepared to do so again this year.

"People that maybe struggled a little bit more last year might've had limited social supports and social networks," she said. "They needed maybe a little bit more professional support because their social network was a little bit smaller."

How to decrease stress

Creaser said flooding can be traumatic, especially because people have little control over what's going on.

As a result, she tells people to "control things you have control over."

During a stressful situation, Creaser recommends eating healthy, getting exercise, spending time "with people who help you feel good, and to take part in activities that make a person feel good, such as going to the movies."

When Darlings Island was cut off by flooding this year, residents had to be ferried to and from their homes across the Hammond River. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"Those are the things that will bring you some peace in this time where you feel like there's so much that you can't control," she said.

She also encourages people to use available resources, which can introduce a variety of coping mechanisms in stressful situations. They can also reinforce "normal responses" to an abnormal situation, such as reminding people it's OK to feel overwhelmed in stressful situations.

"We're more likely to have people turn around and get better the sooner that we get them services," she said.

Bad coping strategies

A Fredericton man tended to a water pump by hanging out his window when the St. John River rose. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Relying on alcohol or drugs is considered to a poor coping strategy.

Creaser said alcohol in particular can affect a person's ability to process trauma, interrupting rapid eye movements  during sleep, also known as REM sleep, a part of the sleep cycle where memorable and vivid dreams take place.

"During that period of our sleep is when we process trauma," she said. "And alcohol suppresses that."

Helping others under stress

Julia Woodhall-Melnik, an assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, is studying the effects of last year's floods and evacuations on the health of people affected. It's funded by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, which focuses on disaster prevention research. 

Her goal is to learn how to reduce the impact of these events, especially on mental health. Then she wants to deliver her recommendations to emergency officials, politicians and first responders. 

Before the flood started this year, she interviewed people in March and April to talk about last year's disaster. Some were worried about flooding this year, while others felt last year's disaster was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Residents on the west side of Grand Lake say heavy winds created more powerful waves, and more damage, this year than last year. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

"We did find there was sort of a varying degree of stress," she said. "Some people were living these lives now that were very uncertain. They didn't know what to expect in the next year.

"They were feeling a bit of despair, anxiety, stress almost hyper in a sense, as they were anticipating the flood in 2019 or what could or could not happen."

But she said most people found working alongside their neighbours through things like sandbagging, was helpful. 

"The community here is very resilient," she said. "They really band together to help one another." 

With files from Information Morning Fredericton


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