Adults are not the only ones feeling the stress of last summer’s wildfires.
What has become evident following the 2017 wildfires is that many people in the community, young and old, are facing increased stress. We may not all have lost homes, but even though we may not recognize it, many of us continue to be deeply affected by the events of last summer.
This is the third in a five-part series on mental health and wellness following the 2017 wildfires, being collaborated on between the Tribune and the Mental Health Working Group. While this series is by no means a substitute for professional support, please use this as a guide to point yourself and your loved ones towards the many resources available, events currently being planned and activities related to improving your mental health and wellness in Williams Lake.
AFTERBURN: Are the kids okay?
For some children, it was the best couple weeks of summer. They had both parents around all day, they got to go camping or for a road trip, their days were filled with activities and community events.
For others, it was the opposite.
Separated from parents, some of whom worked in the midst of wildfires, or with siblings in three different locations, or forced to stay indoors, without the ability to go anywhere, children were also left feeling helpless in the face of the 2017 wildfires.
“There are a lot of parallels between what children and youth and adults feel,” said Dr. Kristin Buhr, a psychologist and director at North Shores Stress and Anxiety Clinic.
She’ll be presenting a series of workshops on mental wellness — including one on parenting anxious children — at the start of June.
“When something traumatic happens, your community has gone through these fires, that is very traumatic, it’s not at all uncommon for all of us to have some symptoms that come from something traumatic,” she said.
Those symptoms, for both youth and adults, can be grouped into four categories, she said, re-experiencing, avoidance, shifts in mood and cognition, and hyper arousal.
The first, re-experiencing, may include nightmares, or emotional triggers where something sparks a memory of what happened. In avoidance, people may just evade the situation entirely, “I don’t want to read about it, I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t want to go somewhere where I might be reminded of it” Buhr said.
The third, shifts in mood or cognition, you might notice you are more down, you don’t feel happier feelings anymore, or your belief system shifts – you might believe that bad things will keep happening where you wouldn’t before.
The fourth category of symptoms, hyper arousal, is where the body keeps the fight-flight response on overdrive, because your body wants to keep you safe.
In children, these can manifest in a number of ways.
They might manifest physically, where children have horrible stomach aches, headaches, or changes in appetite.
They might trouble sleeping, or be more likely to cry and have tantrums and act out, things that are normal for children, but may be a warning sign if they are happening more frequently.
With teenagers, it can manifest in the inability to pay attention at school, or a change in their academic performances.
“Because so many resources are being used to deal with the stress the body is under or the fact they are anxious it means they might be a little more irritated or more likely to act out because they don’t have as much patience,” said Buhr.
Otherwise, you might see children seek reassurance more frequently, are worried for what may come in the future, or are continually checking what is around them – their homework, the lock on the door, scanning the hills for smoke — because of the sense that the world feels out of control
A broader list of signs and symptoms is available via the Canadian Red Cross’s Guide to Disaster Recovery for Parents and Caregivers, as well as a list of resources, are available at the Williams Lake Red Cross Support Centre or online via redcross.ca.
It’s something Silvia Seibert-Dubray, the director of instruction responsible for Student Support Services with School District 27, said her team has noticed in children throughout the course of the year.
While she said there weren’t many students who lost homes due to wildfires, those students were each assigned councillors at the beginning of the year to check in with them, the level of trauma and stress varied greatly in the district.
“Kids who already had heightened anxiety were still anxious,” she said. “Others who were separated or whose parents were part of front line workers, had that heightened anxiety that fear of ‘Am I going to see them again,’ What is going on?’
Some came back saying they had the best summer of their life because of the two-week camping trip with parents.
One of the bigger factors, she said, came down to children’s own resiliency, and whether or not they had experienced prior trauma.
“If it was a child that was already trauma based, behaviours definitely did increase. If this may be the first behaviour they’ve seen in their child — they may be fortunate to have both parents, they may never have experienced death, they were quieter and calmer.”
Read more: AFTERBURN: How can I help?
Still, according to Buhr, any child, just like any adult, could be facing anxiety.
There are things that parents and caregivers can do, however.
One of the biggest things, she said, is simply normalizing those feelings.
“Sometimes we are scared to talk about things, because what if that triggers our kids,” she said.
“The best thing we can be doing is actually talking to our kids about what is going on. Like, ‘Hey, this happened,’ and normalizing it for them: ‘Last year when the forest fires happened, I was scared. When I see something like a slash pile burning and I get nervous about it.’”
She also said that you can question what is going on for them and try to see if it is bothering them too, and then giving them tools to cope, which is something the school district is also working on through a variety of programs, teaching ways they as people can determine what calms them down and gets them to a place where they can listen and be heard.
There are a variety of great applications online, available through axietybc.com, and it can help just to practice calm breathing.
It’s also helpful to reframing things: “Our thoughts aren’t facts. We fall into unhelpful thinking patterns; we think we know it’s going to be bad. Guessing, just makes us anxious.”
She also suggests finding ways to building a foundation now, rather than dealing with the effects after a disaster.
“Get regular sleep, exercise, eat healthy, connect socially and get back engaged in life,” she said. “Fill that emotional bucket with things you enjoy because then when something scary or upsetting or challenging happens, you’ve filled your emotional bucket so it’s not as big a drain.”
Buhr said it’s about controlling what you can.
“Say, ‘Hey, lets come up with a plan as a family. If there is a fire, here is how we will get in touch with each other, here is what we are going to do in case of an emergency.’ We’ve been through this before, so we know what to expect, so we will be even better prepared.”
She said it’s not productive to say “Don’t worry, there is not going to be any fires and nothing bad is going to happen.”
“That’s not true.”
Instead, it’s about giving that sense of control back.
“We want to give our kids reassurance but we have to be careful of giving excessive assurance,” she said. “It’s ‘We’re trying to figure out how to prevent this stuff and how to better manage this if it happens again, so we are going to be okay.’”
Strong Enough: 5 Focused Sessions on mental health post-wildfires
Dr. Kristin Buhr, registered psychologist and director at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic, as well as the lead consultant for AnxietyBC, where she has developed numerous self-help resources for adults, parents, children and teens coping with anxiety problems, will be in Williams Lake for two days to lead a series of free sessions open to all in the community about stress and anxiety post wildfires.
The sessions will cover removing barriers of stigma and fear to address mental health needs, normalizing anxiety and equipping care professionals with tools to further their practice with clients.
Each talk will be an hour, to 90 minutes long, and will include time for discussion and questions at the end.
Monday, June 4
Business Owners, Mangers, HR Staff
2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Pioneer Complex
Objectives: helping to remove barriers of stigma and fear to address mental health needs; understanding and normalizing anxiety; developing strategies to manage stress in the workplace
Parenting Anxious Children
7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Cariboo Bethel Church
Objectives: help parents learn about anxiety; remove barriers of stigma and fear to address mental health needs of their children; develop strategies to help them support their children in managing stress and anxiety
Tuesday, June 5
Mental Health Professionals
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Pioneer Complex
Objectives: equip professionals with tools to further their practice with their clients (including after trauma such as the wildfires); remove barriers of stigma and fear regarding addressing their own mental health needs; how to help colleagues who are struggling with mental health concerns
2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Pioneer Complex
Objectives: a culturally sensitive talk on removing barriers of stigma and fear to address mental health needs after trauma (focus is not residential schools), understanding and normalizing anxiety, learning how to support friends and family
7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Cariboo Bethel Church
Objectives: understanding and normalizing anxiety, removing barriers of stigma and fear to address mental health needs after trauma such as the wildfires, learning how to support friends and family