Cross Country Checkup

'Climate change erodes mental health,' says psychiatrist

Climate change can have a severe and long-lasting impact on the people who live through floods and wildfires, says Dr. Peter Silverstone.

Mental health effects from floods and wildfires can be long-lasting, says Dr. Peter Silverstone

Jean Lamoureux drives his small boat, dubbed the Voisine Express, off his cottage property on flooded Voisine Road and onto the Ottawa River in Clarence-Rockland, Ont., on April 28. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

As many Canadians deal with the immediate problem of flooding, like whether to leave their homes, where to go if they do, and how to protect their property, one expert suggests they should also think about their mental health.

Dr. Peter Silverstone is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and he has studied young people who are coping with the aftermath of the devastating Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

In an interview with Duncan McCue on Cross Country Checkup on Sunday, Silverstone said that climate change can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Here is part of their conversation.

What would the psychological impacts residents face in repeat flood situations, what would that be like?

Dr. Peter Silverstone is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He says that the impact of climate change, from wildfires to floods to hurricanes, can erode mental health. (Submitted by Dr. Peter Silverstone. )

Any trauma ... they lead to anxiety and depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And the problem is that these are not often short-term problems. They're often long-term problems.

I've been part of a team at the University of Alberta when we've investigated many different groups, first responders, people in family practice, people who attend family practice, the general population and in particular, I investigated what happened in children and then over 2,800 youth.

In all of these groups you have increased depression, increased PTSD and increased anxiety and the less good news is that it doesn't seem to rapidly disappear.

When people are exposed and they develop these illnesses, sometimes they last a long time and they can have a lot of impacts on them and their family. 

People that are busy right now dealing with the waters that are right in front of them, trying to save their homes, they may not even be aware of the stress levels that they're under and the impacts in the next days and weeks to come. What are warning signs that people should be aware of?

Water covers Rue Rene in Gatineau, Que., on Saturday as flooding from the Ottawa River continues to affect the region. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

You're absolutely right.

A lot of people actually manage to go through the acute stage reasonably well, but it's when the longer-term impacts occur. Suddenly you have issues with your house, you have issues with insurance, you have issues with various other things, your life has changed.

And at that point you find your sleep is deteriorated, you can't concentrate, you feel jumpy, you're much more easily irritated, you can be angry. That can of course lead to other things at work and at home. 

Exposure to extreme weather events, hurricanes, floods, fires, definitely increases the risks of anxiety and depression.- Dr. Peter Silverstone

So these are what you start to look for after the first few weeks because if those continue those really are things to worry you and you should be starting to reach out for some help if that occurs.

If people are just trying to deal with the paperwork for example ... and they ignore those kinds of warning signs or don't notice them, what can the worst case scenario be?

I think we all know how severe post-traumatic stress disorder can be and how it impacts people's lives. They can become very depressed. They can become suicidal, sometimes they self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

These are major impacts on both the individual and their family. And of course depression [and] anxiety are very severe as well and there's very compelling evidence that actually with climate change, and I know other callers have spoken about this, but climate change erodes mental health. Exposure to extreme weather events, hurricanes, floods, fires, definitely increases the risks of anxiety and depression.

So really what we need to do, we've spoken about resiliency, there needs to be mental health resiliency. And there also needs to be a focus on the fact that these are longer-term areas, and groups that support the short-term interventions, Red Cross for example, need to also focus on the long term. And unfortunately that is not happening now. 

You mentioned Fort McMurray, the patients that you treated then and that included children. I wonder, how does the kind of trauma that is experienced during a wildfire or a flood, how does that manifest in young kids?

A convoy of evacuees from Fort McMurray, Alberta as they leave the city in May 2016. Research from Dr. Peter Silverstone and colleagues shows that young people affected by the fire are still showing psychological effects two-and-half years later. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

We've just published an article this year and we've got another one coming, as I say, the 2,800 young people [had] much higher rates of depression, much higher rates of PTSD  and the really worrying thing is that we did our first analysis 18 months after the wildfire.

We've just followed up two-and-a-half years after the wildfire and very little improvement. So these are long term impacts. And you have to recognize they're going occur.

So if you're going through a flood now and you have kids and you're thinking, 'How can I help them?' First of all, recognize that if your child has a change, don't be surprised, it's not their fault. Try and support them. There's a number of tools available to help with resiliency. But the key is be aware. Mental health problems are real in both kids and adults who go through these sorts of traumas.

You obviously recommend seeking professional help if people get to a point that they're feeling overwhelmed, but can you also offer some self-help suggestions if people are feeling fatigued or depressed or even devastated right now?

There's actually a number of online tools that are quite useful for self-help.

One is called Mood Gym but there are several others. These focus on something called cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT, which really does help people with anxiety and depression in these sorts of areas.

I have other colleagues who are looking at other online tools specifically for this area, but sensible physical health is always actually useful even if you're tired, physical health, releasing endorphins really does help mood and anxiety.

Being aware talking about these things and if you find that you keep having recurrent thoughts you can't get things out of your mind, you are becoming more and more anxious, that's actually a time to go and seek professional help.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. With files from Nida Zafar.