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Fort McMurray fire evacuees suffering from PTSD symptoms: study

A resident looks over the damage in the Timberlea neighbourhood in Fort McMurray, Alta., on June 2, 2016.

TOPHER SEGUIN/REUTERS

A study out of the Université Laval shows a significant number of residents of Fort McMurray who were evacuated during last year's wildfires now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health issues.

Sixty per cent of the respondents to an online questionnaire and follow-up interviews reported having symptoms of PTSD, including disturbing memories of the fires or evacuation, and sleep disorders.

Interviews were conducted by two graduate students under the direction of Geneviève Belleville, a professor and clinical psychologist at Laval who is a specialist in traumatic stress. Travel and other expenses related to the project were partly covered with a $3,000 grant from the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction in Toronto.

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Read more: Five questions with Fort McMurray municipal official Erin O'Neill

Read more: Stories from Fort Mac seven months after the fire

A larger team of researchers will return to Fort McMurray this spring or early summer to revisit some of the evacuees and expand the study. Ms. Belleville says the collaborative effort will also include students and staff from the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta.

Three hundred and seventy-nine residents completed questionnaires and 55 agreed to be interviewed as part of the initial study. Information was collected in July and August, in the early aftermath of the fires.

Approximately 2,400 homes and buildings were damaged during the blaze, which began southwest of Fort McMurray on May 3 and rapidly swept through the city that serves as the gateway to the oil sands region. Fuelled by record-setting temperatures, low humidity and winds gusting to 70 kilometres an hour, the fire intensified and eventually consumed 1.5 million acres in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada has estimated the damages incurred at $3.6-billion, making it the most expensive disaster in Canadian history. Eighty-eight thousand people were evacuated, many of whom escaped in bumper-to-bumper traffic surrounded by walls of flames.

Ms. Belleville, who previously has worked with victims of sexual abuse and soldiers who served in Afghanistan, said some of the results from the study surprised her.

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"I am not sure I was expecting so many people having sleep problems," she said Tuesday. "Insomnia was diagnosed more than PTSD, but that is a concern because sleep disorders are a risk factor for other mental-health issues, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

"Disasters like this affect everybody in a million different ways."

Twenty-nine per cent of evacuees that were interviewed were diagnosed with PTSD, 26 per cent suffered from depression and 36 per cent had insomnia. Other factors associated with post-traumatic stress include a preoccupation or worry about danger and the lack of an ability to solve problems and accurately appraise situations.

Emma Jones, the interim executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association of the Wood Buffalo region, said in an e-mail Tuesday that the organization does not diagnose or collect statistics on people with mental-health issues.

One Fort McMurray resident who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress said that he did not recognize it until he filled out the Université Laval's online questionnaire.

"I was feeling a bit messed up and found myself answering yes to a lot of questions," he said. He then consented to an interview, and realized how badly he had been affected.

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"It wasn't that I just wasn't sleeping, I was irritable and wasn't thinking right," he said.

The man is a long-time resident and asked that his name not be used in order to protect his privacy. He is married with children and his job was lost as a result of the fires.

He was out of town when the inferno began and waited almost a day to be reunited with his family. They have since returned to their home, but says he still occasionally suffers morning sickness related to stress, becomes uneasy when he smells smoke, and was unable to enjoy a recent mild stretch of weather because it reminded him of the days before the fire.

"When we first got back we were still in crisis mode, but when that was over with, things still didn't feel normal," he says. "I have agoraphobia now. I don't want to leave my house."

Ms. Belleville said previous research suggests that a majority of people afflicted with symptoms related to post-traumatic stress will recover. Follow-ups, including the upcoming larger study, will be conducted to assess the long-term psychological impacts and document the need for mental-health services. It is Ms. Belleville's hope to expand to include 1,500 evacuees.

"I want to get there and meet people and find out what they need," she said. "I want to take the pulse of the community and see if there are other relevant issues. It is important to reach out."

The resident suffering from PTSD said that he is slowly getting better, but came to a conclusion recently while conferring with a friend who is suffering similarly.

"We were talking the other day, and agreed the first rule of 2017 is not to mention 2016," he said.

Editor’s Note: A previous version incorrectly identified the source of funding for the study as the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Prevention. In fact, it is the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.
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