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Dr. Matthew Chow on natural disasters and mental health

With summer fast approaching many of us are gearing up for summer vacations, and some much needed time off work. However – for a lot of people across the country, the hotter months no longer symbolize a period of relief and relaxation.

The risk of environmental disasters such as wildfires, droughts, and even flooding is affecting peoples’ wellbeing – and the quantity and severity of these natural disasters is only increasing with each passing summer. 

These events threaten the physical health and safety of those affected and displaced, and they also impact mental health. 

“People are coming off of 3 years of pandemic restrictions” says Dr. Matthew Chow, Chief Mental Health Officer at TELUS Health, “the amount of stress people are experiencing is extraordinary”. 

Immediate stress can result in prolonged psychological effects

For those who are evacuating from danger zones, stress is immediate. It’s most essential that physical health and safety is protected, and people and their families are moved away from immediate danger – be it a wildfire, or a flood. 

Even when physically safe, though, displaced people face the stress of lost homes, property and livelihoods – and in the long run, medical professionals often see delayed impacts resulting from this kind of stress. Anxiety, depression, and trauma symptoms can appear weeks or even months after the physical danger has passed.

“Think of this as a type of delayed psychological injury”, says Dr. Chow.  

Those who may not have to evacuate, but are put on alert may face less immediate danger, but instead are put into a prolonged state of stress. Dr. Chow notes that people with high resilience, and a supportive social safety network can usually get through these prolonged states of stress – however, those who are already stressed can suffer.

What can you do if you’re affected?

First, it’s essential that you are physically out of harm’s way. If that means moving yourself and your family to safety, that’s the number one priority.

Second, do a self-assessment of your own mental health. Notice if you’re experiencing signs of stress or delayed impacts of trauma. Dr. Chow says these signs can range from increased use of alcohol, irritability, to sleeping badly. 

If your mental health is suffering, it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional. Check whether your employer or government is offering mental health resources. 

Additionally, it’s important to reach out to friends and family for support. Or, if it’s not you in danger, be sure to reach out to those you know who may be affected. 

What can you do as an employer looking to support your people?

Because of the increasing toll that events like wildfires are taking on communities, it’s essential that employers provide resources to support the mental health of those affected. Without support, employees may be anxious, stressed, disengaged, and unable to perform their daily tasks. 

Solutions like Total Mental Health can help employers provide for their employees by giving employees and their families access to 24/7 counseling, and on-demand access to mental health supports. 

In June, Dr. Matthew Chow was interviewed on Newstalk 770 radio to speak about wildfires and mental health. You can listen to the full interview here