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Psychological effects of fires

Published On: 09-11-2015 in Category: Mental Health


The plumes of smoke rise up and blanket the sky as the earth burns beneath. The flames lick at the surface finding any and everything they can catch and burn, gaining speed and size. Homes may be evacuated, people stay indoors to avoid the ash and a grey cloud of fear looms over everyone. Hearts are racing, eyes wide and the mind is on overload.

For five days this past August, the Anza fire spread across Riverside County. The fire was reported on Aug. 10, 2015, and lasted until Aug. 15, 2015. The fire was contained with no fatalities and few injuries thanks to the Fire Department. Yet, that grey cloud of fear that looms over people during a tragedy such as this, may have more lasting mental effects than some realize.

Psychological damages

There is always a concern of ash in the air when fires of this scale break out. Depending on the location and severity of the fire, schools may be canceled due to dangers of breathing ash into the lungs and houses evacuated for safety. However, there may be more lasting psychological effects.

Author of the review, “The Health Impact of Wildfires,” Sarah Elise Finlay, collects data on physical and mental health impacts of wildfires. Finlay reviews a study, “Psychiatric morbidity following a natural disaster: an Australian bushfire,” published in the journal, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. The study finds, “Twelve months after the fires, 42 percent of the population exposed to wildfires were classified as potential psychiatric cases.”

Finlay also reviews a study, “Psychiatric disorders among adults seeking emergency disaster assistance after a wildland-urban interface fire,” published in the journal, Psychiatric Services. The study followed 357 patients who, after the 2003 wildfires in California, requested healthcare, “With 33 percent showing symptoms of major depression and 24 percent showing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” These mental illnesses range in severity and can affect children as well as adults.

Children in the aftermath

Even in children, there can be psychological reactions to a wild or residential fire. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, explains that, “Children will react differently to a wildfire and its aftermath depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences.” The type of reactions range from decrease in appetite to angry outbursts or increase in risky behavior.

It is important for families to spend time together and, “Letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries, and that their reactions to the wildfires are normal.” Through communication — even if they were not directly involved in the incident — people can process what has transpired.

These mental illnesses are treatable and manageable if one seeks help. If a family member displays signs or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or other forms of mental illness, seek professional help. Do not wait for the symptoms to worsen, speak with the loved one about the concerns and seek treatment today.

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