The Current·Q&A

Returning to routine critical for mental health of people impacted by Fiona, researcher says

As Atlantic Canadians continue to reel from the damage caused by storm Fiona, researcher and family therapist Michael Ungar discusses the emotional impact of the disaster.

Atlantic Canadians continue to reel from emotional damage days after storm Fiona impact

Deputy fire chief Baine Hodder surveys the devastation caused by Fiona in Burnt Island, Newfoundland. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

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The sooner people in communities devastated by post-tropical storm Fiona can return to work, school and other familiar routines, the better they'll be able to recover psychologically, says a leading expert on resilience.

Michael Ungar is the Canada research chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University. He says communities that go through a natural disaster tend to see a ripple effect of collective loss.

"We live well when we have routines and a sense of security, and also a sense of efficacy or control over the world around us," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"And when our neighbour sort of experiences that in a big significant loss … we have that sort of secondary or vicarious experience of our our experience of safety and security also being shattered."

Ungar spoke to Galloway about the emotional toll a community faces after a natural disaster, and how a community can recover from it. Here's part of their conversation.

For these communities, getting the schools open, getting the jobs back, getting people back to even electricity … all of that adds to that sense of it's a psychological intervention.-Michael Ungar, researcher and family therapist

A hundred plus people work [in the Victoria Co-op Fisheries] plant in Neils Harbour, N.S., and they're now out of work as people try to scramble to get that plant back online. 

How does that impact the rhythm of somebody's life if their livelihood is snatched away from them and they don't feel any sense of control in that?

Well, you're getting really at the roots of the way that we feel resilience or the way that we deal effectively with trauma is through that return to routines, the sense of continuity of we know where we belong.

People will talk about what makes me future-oriented or optimistic about the future. It's not something that just happens inside our minds. We don't sort of, you know, say to ourselves to be positive. It comes from that that very habituated, normal day — something happened, I fed my cattle, I went to work, I met somebody on the street that I meet all the time. 

That kind of creates that sense of, well, my world is predictable and therefore I can anticipate tomorrow and know that it's going to be OK, too. 

So for these communities, getting the schools open, getting the jobs back, getting people back to even electricity … all of that adds to that sense of psychological intervention.

WATCH: How to start the process of Fiona insurance claims

Fiona insurance claims: What to consider and how to start the process

2 months ago
Duration 8:30
Amanda Dean, vice-president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada's Atlantic region, says Atlantic Canadians who own property damaged by post-tropical storm Fiona should call their insurer immediately and begin documenting what they intend to claim.

We've seen this, say, after the Fort McMurray wildfires, which devastated their communities. One of the first and most helpful things that people experience was the insurance adjusters went to the shelters where people had been displaced too in several cases, and started those claims. 

That, I'm going to argue, became a psychological intervention against trauma, because suddenly people feel, "I can return to my community, I can get on with my life, I can start rebuilding, I can reconnect to my community."

We've had conversations over the last couple of days with people who have loved where they have lived, right on the shore of the ocean. It's been part of their lives for their entire lives — and a couple of people said after this, they're not going to rebuild there, that they wouldn't go back to that area. What is the impact of that lingering trauma when you're trying to rebuild and you're trying to figure out where to rebuild?

On one hand, it's obvious that the ocean, the waves, the noise is going to be triggering for people if they've really had that brush with death or complete destruction of their lives. So that move perhaps inland is in a sense protective, and that would be somewhat expected. 

But, you know, there's also something sensible about this as our climate changes, as we're seeing these storms become more and more frequent. In fact, what we we just sort of don't want to see is this what's sometimes referred to as toxic positivity, this unrealistic assessment of the risks. 

So while it's extremely hard for communities that have had these wonderful lifestyles of being very close and sort of intimate with the ocean and the environment. <<something missing here? if not, I think we might want to join these sentences, removing "but">> But part of that is also going to demand change. 

The Victoria Co-op Fisheries processing plant and New Haven Road, both inside the breakwater at New Haven Cove, suffered serious damage due to Saturday's storm. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The research I do is on how can communities re-establish new routines in both sort of formal connections, but also the institutions. 

So when when Calgary buys out a lot of land on the floodplain after some major flooding and … insists that people relocate, it's a painful process, but it also sets the community up for future resilience. 

Of course, as individuals ourselves, we do these informal things. I mean, it's everything from, you know, the small little things like the dog parks that keep us connected to our our neighbours, the community clean ups — or maybe it's as trite as the fact that, when we're off on vacation, we leave a key with a neighbour to check on our house. 

But what people will need to do … is sort of sew back the fabric of our communities through these small acts of generosity and kindness and connection. 

Some of that will be institutional through the businesses that restart and the government supports and this type of thing. But a lot of it's also going to rely on just people re-establishing the routines and the lives that they need to get on.

WATCH: How a Port aux Basques, N.L., home has come a symbol of Fiona's destruction

Port aux Basques home becomes a symbol of Fiona’s destruction

2 months ago
Duration 3:02
The now-iconic picture of Josh Savery’s family home in Port aux Basque, N.L., teetering on the edge of a cliff captured the terror of post-tropical storm Fiona in a single image. While the famous picture reminds the family of what they lost, it also attracted an outpouring of sympathy and kindness.

We're just about out of time, but that's a long road, right? I mean, if you're speaking to people in the communities that have been devastated by this storm, they have a good patch ahead of them before that sense of community is rebuilt.

I think that the trick, certainly, is to not feel like you're forgotten. We often hear that post-disaster, people feel like they slip off the front page news.

That's where local municipal governments are often really good, or local service initiatives, local service clubs, step into that that gap and just keep reminding people — and you know, the insurance adjusters come out. Things get settled; things get better.

Produced by Brianna Gosse and Amanda Grant. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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