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Published on May 17th, 2016 | from CAMH

Trauma at Fort McMurray can lead to PTSD

By Dr. Katy Kamkar, Clinical Psychologist, Work, Stress and Health Program

Originally posted on CP24

The wildfire at Fort McMurray is devastating and heartbreaking. It has been present in most conversations and in everyone’s thoughts, hearts and prayers. We have once again seen Canadians uniting and raising funds to help, which is heartwarming. We are also seeing the exceptional work of first responders.

Natural disasters (such as earthquakes, tsunami, severe storms, and wildfires) represent a significant risk to the mental health of trauma survivors. These events are often followed by community devastation, destruction and displacement, loss of homes, jobs, and finances. The devastation in Fort McMurray is one such example. At times natural disasters also include loss of lives, injuries, and missing individuals.

The psychological distress associated with natural disasters is typically exacerbated by the stressors and losses that occur in the aftermath of the trauma.

Research shows that in addition to adults, children and adolescents exposed to such natural disasters are vulnerable to mental health problems, including increased feelings of anxiety and fear for safety.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most frequent and disabling psychological disorder that occurs following natural and human-made disasters. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops when a person experiences, witnesses or is confronted with an extreme traumatic event that has threatened their safety. A traumatic event makes a person feel intensely fearful, helpless or horrified.

PTSD symptoms include re-experiencing symptoms such as intrusive and upsetting memories of the traumatic event, bad dreams, flashbacks or a sense of reliving the event, feelings of intense psychological distress when reminded of the trauma, and/or intense physical reactions to reminders of the event. Avoidance symptoms of PTSD include avoiding thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma, avoiding activities, places or people that are reminders of the trauma, feeling detached from other people, or feeling emotionally numb. And increased arousal symptoms such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, or being constantly “on guard”, feeling jumpy and easily startled.

Such reactions are typically seen shortly after a traumatic event – and are natural and expected. However, if the symptoms continue over a prolonged period of time and increase or become more distressing and begin to interfere with daily activities, then a person might be suffering from PTSD. Seeking help is essential in that case.

According to the National Centre for PSTD, the condition includes several phases. Phase one is the impact phase where individuals who have survived the traumatic event try to protect their lives and the lives of others. People are often in panic, might be in shock, cry or run away. During phase two, the post disaster or rescue phase, survivors try to withdraw from the impact of the traumatic event; they might feel highly anxious or in shock, angry, sad, helpless or hopeless or guilty for having survived. Phase three is the recovery phase where survivors begin to readjust to their lives. The adjustment will depend of the severity of the traumatic event, and the injuries and losses experienced. Phase four is the problematic stress response phase where PTSD might be diagnosed. During the latter phase, survivors often experience distressing thoughts, memories or flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of detachment, and will try to avoid any reminders of the trauma. The prevalence of PTSD is higher among the victims of a disaster who have been closest to the disaster.

Disasters have been found to result in some positive experiences, including personal growth, strengthened relationships, and learning.

Close relationships among family members, and parental warmth, love and care and support are very important and beneficial for children and adolescents who are victims of disasters.

Promoting a sense of safety, security, support and hope have been found to be helpful interventions for children.

Scientific-based psychological interventions for trauma have been found to be effective and can be provided when symptoms continue to be very distressing weeks after the traumatic event.

Among adult victims of natural disasters, the support of social networks, collective mourning, cultural and spiritual practices, and community self-help groups have all been found to be effective in helping people cope.

When the acute stress subsides, survivors who experience increasing and distressing symptoms of PTSD would most likely benefit from seeking mental health services.

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