USA: After the wildfire: Treating the mental health crisis triggered by climate change
By Dean Kuipers
In 2017, thousands of homes in Santa Rosa, California, were wiped off the map. Now the community is helping residents cope with the trauma
The climate crisis is manifesting as ever-bigger wildfires, hurricanes, floods and heat waves; and cities are just starting to grapple with the mental impact of the emergency. A climate task force of the American Psychological Association, citing scores of studies over the last decades, reports that survivors of these human-enhanced disasters are experiencing dramatic increases in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, suicide and suicidal thoughts, violent behavior and increased use of drugs and alcohol. A Rand study found that one-third of the adult survivors of California wildfires in 2003 suffered depression and one-quarter suffered PTSD.
The mental health effects of climate change have been known for quite some time now: a 1991 meta-study found that as many as 40% of those directly impacted by climate-enhanced superstorms and fires suffer acute negative mental health effects, some of which become chronic. Puerto Rico, for example, has seen an epidemic of suicide, PTSD and depression after hurricanes Irma and Maria. After Hurricane Katrina, some people referred to the sense of generalized anxiety and depression common to survivors as “Katrina brain”.
[A] first-of-its-kind collaborative was established by a not-for-profit in Sonoma county, where Santa Rosa lies, following the fires. It offered residents a set of six tools, including a phone app that allows users to track their affect and behavior, private therapy and trauma-informed yoga – all at no cost.
The Healthcare Foundation of northern Sonoma county jumped in to organize the collaborative because residents who’d escaped the fire soon found themselves confronted by another hurdle: government disaster funding may help rebuild their town, but it doesn’t help them cope with the trauma.