The rugged woodland surrounding Fort McMurray has shed its snow, revealing the black and grey carcasses of a formerly thriving forest.
The changed landscape is more than a visual reminder of what happened here a year ago. It is also a trigger for many of the city’s wounded residents, a portal back into the nightmare of a sudden evacuation and burning neighbourhoods.
“People have noticed that when the snow melted, they could again see there were all these black trees and the burning was obvious,” psychiatrist Dr. Sandra Corbett said. “They found that distressing. People start complaining of nightmares and reliving the anxiety.”
The 20-year resident of Fort McMurray is Alberta Health Services’ chief of psychiatry for addictions and mental health in the city, which means she has a major leadership role in responding to the mental health crisis that followed in the wake of the wildfire.
Statistics compiled by AHS provide an indication of the challenge.
In the first 10 months following the evacuation, the health authority received more than 29,000 mental health-related client contacts. By the time the anniversary rolls around next week, that number is expected to be close to 35,000.
Such contacts run the gamut from one-time counselling to ongoing therapy sessions to placement in the hospital’s in-patient ward.
The reality of rebuilding
Residents have presented with a variety of issues at different times, but mental health workers have noticed a general pattern or a series of phases in the recovery process, Corbett says.
“Initially, there is almost a honeymoon period where people felt good and were saying, 'We survived, we are strong, we are resilient and we will be back,’" she said
“That lasts for a certain period of time, but then people actually come back to the community and there’s a bit of a reality check when you realize what you have lost and realizing that rebuilding doesn’t just happen right away.”
For many, that disillusionment period gave greater focus to feelings of grief and loss. At the same time, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — nightmares, anxiety attacks and hyper-vigilance — began to become more prevalent.
An SOS Crisis Line sign on Highway 63. Many in Fort McMurray continue to struggle with mental health issues following the 2016 wildfire
And in a city that suffered considerable trauma to both structures and nerves, there have been plenty of triggers for such symptoms. The sight of damaged homes that have yet to be repaired. Construction noise. Sirens. Smoke from a random house fire, or from controlled burns designed to make the city safer.
“Those burns were very well-advertised, but I can tell you I came down Thickwood Boulevard one morning and smelled fire and saw the smoke, and even I was a little concerned it was closer to the road than I thought,” Corbett said.
Symptoms catching people by surprise
She says while many residents appear to have turned the corner on their issues, a frustrating aspect of PTSD is that it can show up at any time. Some of her clients are only now experiencing symptoms, catching them by surprise.
As people have tried to find different ways to cope, alcohol and drug abuse have climbed. Corbett says some cases have become extreme, requiring a stay in the hospital’s mental health unit. “The people we have seen have been more sick,” she says.
As part of the city’s recovery plan, AHS has added more outreach staff and mental health workers.
Hours for walk-in services have been expanded so that a downtown clinic is open from 9 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. daily, while the health authority has ensured mental health workers are available at municipal public events.
While some residents disagree, Corbett believes the health system is adequately managing the demand, though it can sometimes be a challenge to maintain staffing levels.
Looking after the kids
As for the city’s children, school boards have taken their own measures.
Fort McMurray Catholic Schools stationed a counsellor in each school, which was a switch from the past when schools would share counsellors. Schools had to be more sensitive to anxiety, and warned families in advance when they were running fire drills and lockdowns, superintendent George McGuigan said.
At Fort McMurray Public Schools, assistant superintendent of inclusive education Shannon Noble says she worked closely with a trauma team from the Calgary Board of Education, who had experience with the aftermath of that city’s 2013 flood.
The public district trained all staff, from custodians to the superintendent, in “psychological first aid,” which taught them to look for subtle signs of suffering. Teachers also now lead mindfulness exercises, and students use an online program called Heartmap to practise breathing exercises and measure their pulse to combat anxiety.
With files from Janet French