Cross Country Checkup

Extreme weather events can affect mental health, even from afar

The effect of witnessing events like the flooding in B.C. can have a profound effect on those even if they aren’t directly affected, according to experts.

'We are flooded with images and video of these events. That can make people very anxious,' said Robin Cox

People load sandbags to try to stop the rising floodwaters near Abbotsford, B.C., on Friday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Sonja Cehun has struggled to explain the catastrophic floods in her home province of B.C. to her two children.

Normally, Cehun and her husband have an open question policy with their kids, aged 10 and 13. 

But she was lost for words when her youngest asked about the devastating effects of last weekend's rainfall in B.C.

"When she said to me on Wednesday morning, 'Why is this happening?' I just thought ... I don't know. I don't have the answer anymore," said Cehun.

An atmospheric river drenched the province on Sunday and Monday, leading to record rainfall that caused landslides, washed out roads and highways, and cut off cities from the rest of the province.

As recovery begins, limitations on travel and fuel purchases have been imposed.

WATCH | Limits on gas for non-essential drivers, work continues to rebuild dike

B.C. limits gas for non-essential drivers, work continues to rebuild dike

2 years ago
Duration 2:59
An emergency order in B.C. has limited gas purchases for non-essential drivers to ensure enough supply in the storm aftermath. Meanwhile in Abbotsford, B.C., crews are frantically working to shore up the Sumas River dike before the next deluge.

The B.C. floods are the latest in a series of tragedies that are weighing on Cehun, a veterinarian from Australia. First came the Australian bushfires in January 2020, which she watched from afar, then the COVID-19 pandemic. That was followed by wildfires and the heat dome in B.C. and multiple cancer diagnoses in her family.

Though the North Vancouver resident hasn't been directly affected by the floodwaters, she says the events have taken a toll on her and her children.

"I didn't do a lot of editing of my own personal feelings about how things were. And so it's hard ... it trickles down to the children in every conceivable way," said Cehun.

Witnessing disaster & vicarious trauma

The effect of witnessing events like those in B.C. can have a profound effect on people, even if they aren't directly affected.

"We are flooded with images and video of these events," said Robin Cox, a professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria and director of a research lab called Resilience by Design. 

"That can make people very anxious. People can also potentially see themselves in that situation if they also live in a flood risk area, for example, or if they've had previous events happen."

Volunteers from the community fill and deliver sandbags to farms in the Sumas Prairie flood zone in Yarrow, B.C., on Friday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Experiencing that might lead to stress or fear, or even re-trigger other emotions based on a person's past experiences.

For others who may have lived through floods in the past, seeing those images can lead to something called "vicarious trauma," according to Katie Hayes, a senior policy analyst for Health Canada who studies the links between climate change and mental health.

Vicarious trauma is typically experienced by those working with victims of trauma, such as a psychologist or doctor, but are themselves not directly affected. However, people whose loved ones are facing traumatic events, may also experience it. 

In her research, Hayes interviewed those who survived the 2013 flood in High River, Alta. When they see stories of flooding from around the world, they're taken back to their own experience.

"I think this is something to consider as we're all experiencing the changes that take place globally related to these extreme weather events," she said.

As climate change continues to affect communities around the country, Hayes says that it's important to consider mental health as part of overall health — and acknowledge that many people may be experiencing anxiety over the warming climate and extreme weather events.

"We're very attuned to the climate crisis and also seeing what types of emotional responses we may be having, our children may be having, and noting that it's important to bring this conversation to the forefront," she said.

A man walks his dog past a flooded church as clean-up continues after flooding in Princeton, B.C., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

'Put your oxygen mask on first'

When her 10-year-old daughter's school was temporarily evacuated because of a possible gas leak earlier this week, Cehun says her daughter became very upset.

"My 10-year-old is a very ebullient, happy person," said Cehun. "And to find out that a 30-minute evacuation ... was enough to knock her off her keel completely, I think, was a bit of a moment for me."

Cehun worries that as extreme events seemingly become more frequent, she doesn't have the capacity to address her kids' mental health concerns.

"I'm feeling the weight of these terrible things and the worries of the world are firmly on our shoulders. And so I feel like I'm running out of tools in my toolbox to help my kids find a better perspective," she said. 

"Yes, they need more mental help, but how do you supply that when everybody's buckets are empty?"

WATCH | Shifting waters, border issues create uncertainty after B.C. floods

Shifting waters, border issues create uncertainty after B.C. floods

2 years ago
Duration 3:13
Shifting floodwaters are adding to the uncertainty for many in B.C.’s Fraser Valley. And for those hoping to get home with a U.S. detour are out of luck without a passport.

Cox says that after nearly two years of a pandemic, which has disproportionately affected parents, stress levels are higher than normal. She suggests addressing conversations about difficult events head on, but in an age-appropriate fashion. 

For those feeling overwhelmed, however, she adds that it's important to practise self-care first. That might include asking friends or family to watch children for a short period, or reaching out for professional mental health support.

"Put your oxygen mask on first and then help the person beside you, whether that person is a child or somebody else," she said.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Ashley Fraser