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Building resilience in the face of wildfires

Mental health professionals give advice on how to manage emotional distress associated with wildfires.

California has experienced unprecedented wildfires in recent years. A study of the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California, one of the deadliest in the state’s history, showed chronic mental health problems among residents.

Although not everyone has experienced the loss of a home or loved one, we have all been exposed to wildfires through the media, by smelling or seeing smoke nearby, or had friends or family who have been impacted.

Below, Kaiser Permanente mental health psychiatrists discuss how these natural disasters affect our well-being and steps you can take to build resilience.

Mental health effects

Emily Porch, MD, an adult and child psychiatrist and chief of Outpatient Psychiatry for Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, said after the 2017 fires in her area, patients experienced a range of symptoms from elevated irritability, fear, and stress to overwhelming anxiety, constant worry, and trouble sleeping.

“Trauma affects everyone differently, but it’s been shown that the mental health effects of wildfires can linger even for those just watching the devastation,” said Dr. Porch.  

According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, 10% to 30% of wildfire survivors develop diagnosable mental health conditions while another 50% may suffer less serious effects that fade with time.

Children are among the most vulnerable

A 2021 study published by the National Library of Medicine showed that children experienced concentration issues and changes in sleep and academic performance after a wildfire.

Ashley Zucker, MD, chief of Psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente San Bernadino in Southern California said, “Kids are not as good at identifying their emotions. Instead, it tends to manifest as fits of anger.”  

Dr. Zucker’s advice for parents is to encourage them to talk about their feelings, and be aware of red flags such as those listed above. As a parent, it’s influential to stay calm in times of uncertainty, promote positive coping skills, and assure your kids of their own resilience. There are many tools to help build resilience in the face of wildfires and natural disasters:

Focus on what you can control

This means being prepared. Preparedness can cultivate a more relaxed state of mind, Dr. Zucker said. Prepare your go bag. Know your local resources in case of evacuation, evacuation routes, and important contacts. Dr. Zucker also explained that helping others during times of disaster, such as donating food or supporting a loved one, has been shown to be mentally beneficial.

Don’t overconsume news

It’s important to stay informed, but overconsuming news can create a distorted reality. “Watching excessive amounts of fire coverage can greatly exacerbate trauma,” said Dr. Zucker. “Take frequent breaks from social media and news.

Develop a new mindset

Conditioning ourselves to expect the unexpected is a valuable tool for staving off anxiety. Building resilience into our mindset and developing healthy coping skills can give us freedom from constantly worrying about the possibility of something terrible happening, according to Dr. Porch. This can include staying in the present moment and practicing gratitude.

Talk about your experience

“Talking to others with similar experiences can normalize your emotions,” Dr. Porch said. “Suppressing feelings can result in a flooding of emotions anytime there is a threat of fire.”

Get help

First identify your emotions, then take steps to get the right care. It could be tapping into digital resources such as the wellness app Calm or talking with a therapist. “If you’re having frequent intrusive thoughts about wildfires or you feel like you can’t manage your emotions or daily activities, it’s time for professional help,” Dr. Zucker said.

For Kaiser Permanente members, get care from a mental health therapist.


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