The Current

As floodwaters wreak havoc in Eastern Canada, impact on mental health can be 'profound,' says sociologist

The physical damage caused by floods across Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick is often plain to see — but it's also leaving an emotional toll among citizens forced from their homes that may linger years after repairs to infrastructure are completed.

Ottawa Public Health officials conducting wellness checks on residents' physical and mental health

Public health inspector Patricia Morgan, left, and nurse Joanne Veldman survey flooded areas of Constance Bay in a dinghy, accompanied by members of Ottawa Fire Services. (City of Ottawa)

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The physical damage caused by floods across Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick is often plain to see — but it's also leaving an emotional toll among citizens forced from their homes that may linger years after repairs to infrastructure are completed.

"You couldn't prepare for it. The more you did, the more it just came up, and you just had this, almost a sense of loss," said Randy Rae, who left his home last week after officials in the township of Laurentian Valley, east of Ottawa, declared a state of emergency.

Rae says it's been difficult speaking about the ordeal, in ways he didn't anticipate.

"Every time I try to tell my story to somebody else, you just get another emotion. Or when you're visualizing the inside of the place, you just get so sad. So your emotions change every day," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Randy Rae, was forced to leave his home after officials in the township of Laurentian Valley declared a state of emergency because of severe flooding. (Submitted by Randy Rae)

These emotional waves are a common part of the experience of surviving a natural disaster, according to Caroline McDonald-Harker, a sociology professor at Mount Royal University.

"Major disasters have not only devastating impacts on physical infrastructure like homes, buildings and communities, but they also have long-term psychosocial impacts on individuals," said McDonald-Harker, who is also a faculty affiliate with the Centre for Community Disaster Research.

Mental health effects can last years

McDonald-Harker's research on natural disasters, including the 2013 Alberta floods and 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, found that affected residents often suffer from mental health effects such as PTSD, anxiety and depression.

"In fact, the mental health effects following [a] disaster are so profound that they last much longer than the visible destruction caused by a disaster like a flood," she said.

Joanne Veldman speaks to a resident of Constance Bay, Ont., near the Ottawa River, where flooding has displaced residents and damaged homes. (City of Ottawa)

In some cases, people may not recognize the signs of the mental toll until years later, at least in part because they're preoccupied with rebuilding their homes and settling back into the community.

"Oftentimes people don't deal with some of the psychological effects that they're experiencing and they keep putting it off, thinking that if they focus on rebuilding and getting their homes back in order, then the mental health challenges go away — but often they don't," she told Tremonti.

Wellness checks offer practical, moral support

In Ottawa, staff and officials have been conducting door-to-door wellness checks to provide both organizational and emotional support for affected citizens.

"What we want to do in public health is talk to them about reducing and eliminating additional risk so that they don't have other stressors bombarding them," said Joanne Veldman, an Ottawa Public Health nurse who's part of the wellness check team.

She's working with emergency services, including paramedics, police, fire and public health to offer practical advice, such as how best to avoid infection from contaminated water, or how to safely operate manual generators.

But they're also there to offer the moral support people need to make it through the ordeal.

Veldman has had many conversations with people like Rae who get emotional when recounting the last few weeks.

"I would talk to them, and they would say, 'I was fine yesterday, but today, I'm a mess, because I think I have to lose my home now — I have to evacuate,'" she recalled.

Caroline McDonald-Harker says the emotional toll Ottawa residents may encounter after the flooding are likely similar to the same mental health effect felt by people after the 2013 Alberta floods, and the 2016 wildfires in Fort McMurray, B.C. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Veldman says she and other public health officials were trained in psychological first-aid following the tornado outbreak that hit parts of Canada and the U.S., in 2018.

"We learned a lot about working the that sort of psychological shock state, and saying, you know, recognizing it's completely OK to not feel OK," she said.

Getting a decent amount of sleep and eating well are among her top pieces of advice to maintaining optimal mental health in the face of a crisis.

"We're really there to say these are what are going to help you stay strong to keep dealing with this flood — as an individual, as a family, as a community."

The Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board said Tuesday they expect the Ottawa River to peak in some areas west of Ottawa and Gatineau, Que.

But in urban Ottawa and Gatineau, forecasted peaks are still expected to significantly exceed levels seen during 2017's floods by 41 and 30 centimetres respectively.

Environment Canada issued heavy rainfall warnings and special weather statements across a wide section of the flood zones in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick through Tuesday and Wednesday.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation. 

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Alison Masemann, Samira Mohyeddin, Danielle Carr and Cinar Kiper.