When Dr. Geneviève Belleville—a professor of psychology at Laval University—hears about what people in the area have experienced in recent weeks with the Elephant Hill wildfire, she says it is very similar to what was witnessed in the Fort McMurray community after the wildfire in 2016.
“Everybody has been evacuated, or has been touched by the problem. Everybody knows someone who experienced serious loss. There can be some ‘survivor’ guilt about letting yourself feel whatever you have been experiencing, because you are comparing yourself to somebody who has had it worse than you.
“This is a common reaction, I think, when an entire community has been subjected to a disaster or catastrophe.”
Speaking about people who had to be evacuated but have now returned home, Belleville says there are two kinds of stressors for them. “First there is the fear of what could have been. Of course now they know their home or their pet or their neighbours are okay; but when you are evacuating you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.
“The experience of fear during the evacuation is really important. If you feel you are going to lose everything, or that you are going to lose somebody you are really close to, this can make a big impression on your brain, and cause some reminiscences afterward that are going to be difficult to deal with.
“The other kind of stressor is the day-to-day adaptation to the disaster. Maybe they didn’t lose their home, but maybe they have cleaning to do, or they have some replacements to make. They have to deal with the insurance companies, or maybe some of them changed their work schedules or lost their jobs. In terms of the number of stressors that can accumulate after experiencing a disaster, this is also going to predict how people can continue to adapt and return to their day-to-day functioning or not.”
Belleville says that those who lost their homes will be living with extensive trauma. “You not only lose the things you need to function; you lose memories, and things that you are emotionally attached to. That’s a lot to take in, and obviously a very impactful event.
“These people are going to need all the support they can get; tangible support, such as being lodged somewhere during reconstruction, and also emotional support, in the sense of having people to talk to who will listen to them and welcome what they have to say without trying to be too optimistic.
“With good intentions we might want to say to somebody ‘Everything is not so bad, everything is going to be alright, you’re alive, that’s what counts.’ But sometimes these good intentions are a bit dismissive of what the person is trying to express, whether it’s sadness or frustration. The first prediction factor after a traumatic event will be social support. I always say that the first job of the entourage is really to listen and support the person, and welcome the person to talk about what she’s going through when she’s going to need it.”
Belleville is asked about people in Ashcroft who did not lose anything, but still lived through a traumatic event and watched people they know lose so much. “Their experience is important and significant and distressful too. Because your neighbour had it worse than you does not mean that you’re not suffering, or living through something that is difficult. The first thing is to acknowledge that something is difficult.
“When you are living through painful emotions, just saying that they don’t have to be there, or that they’re not supposed to be there, does not make them go away. The first step is acknowledging what you’re going through, and really assessing if it is a stress on your day-to-day functioning. Is it just something you think you are going through, or is it something that is impacting or altering your day-to-day functioning; in which case you may need to have professional help, even though you haven’t lost anything.
“These people did go through something very traumatic and very stressful.”
Talking to people, and getting emotional support, is critical, says Belleville; but there are other things people can do to help themselves de-stress. “There are some exercises that are good for people with anxiety problems, or who are going through any stressors. And having fun: I know it’s difficult in a community that has been through a disaster, but find a way to have social activities, to connect with friends and family.
“There are a lot of stressors, and a lot of things to take care of, but having fun, relaxing, having activities that are social and pleasant are also important things to get into your schedule.
“Most people who are going through a disaster: it’s amazing the number of people who are resilient. Some people go through what we call post-traumatic growth. The painful experience has opened their eyes on what their true value is, and what they want to focus their life on. Of course, these events are terrible, and we’re not saying they’re good things to experience; but there is hope that most people, with time and with care, are going to get better. Most of them are going to be resilient; and some of them may even find that this event maybe helped them change their life for the better.”