Oregon Wildfires Add To Mental Health Impacts During Pandemic

Oct 18, 2020

Few people were ready for what 2020 had in store. A pandemic, protests, economic distress and in much of Oregon, wildfires. Such crises can take a toll on our mental health.

 

Property in Blue River after the Holiday Farm Fire destroyed the town.
Credit Andy Nelson / The Register-Guard

 

Whether personally affected by the wildfires or simply experiencing smoke in the air for days, Roger Brubaker with Lane County Public Health says this disaster has to be viewed within the larger context of the pandemic.

“I think a lot of people are dealing with this right now,” said Brubaker. “This loss of certainty about the future. This anticipation that goes beyond just the losses they’re experiencing on a daily basis, but this anxiety about future loss. And that that anxiety is going to really start wearing on people.”

This anxiety coupled with the wildfires can compound the trauma people experienced and intensify the effects. With people’s coping skills already taxed, they may find themselves less ready to handle the additional stress. 

Someone who experienced direct loss from the wildfires might have an increase in feelings of uncertainty or loss of security. Those impacted by smoke were driven indoors isolated even more which was an intensification of the pandemic experience. No matter what, it all became unavoidable.

This time in history is unique and it is not something people are prepared for. But, with more wildfires expected in the future for the region, they might start thinking they need to be.

Brubaker says coping starts with an acknowledgement of what someone has lost - homes, normalcy, environment- and the emotions about the loss. It might even look like grief which can be expressed through numbness, anger and avoidance. Then, coming to terms with the new reality.

“The very process of healing from loss becomes even more difficult when there is so much disturbance in the world,” said Brubaker. “Because it’s really hard to target that future certainty that people used to be able to feel so confident they could.”

According to Brubaker, our sense of security has been so undermined with the compounding crises that we are questioning decisions we might once have felt certain about.

He also discussed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how people’s basic needs of safety, shelter, food and water need to be met before people can have rich relationships and create meaning in their lives. If these needs are disrupted, it can be difficult to regain a sense of self and purpose again.

Beyond individual trauma, mass tragedies can have a community-wide impact.

“And when we start disturbing the way that we relate to one another, we really do something consequential,” Brubaker said. “We need one another to survive. And when the ways that we relate to one another start coming into question and some of that trust and expectations are undermined, then that sense of hope and belief in one another is also undermined.”

Communities, just like individuals are resilient. 

When trauma is experienced on both an individual and community level, recovery happens on two fronts. This means assisting the individuals impacted by the tragedy while simultaneously trying to get the community to focus on rebuilding together.

According to Brubaker, communicating with others releases the psychological pressure of trauma. 

This can involve professional services, but can also mean finding a support group or finding a friend to talk to. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources and a list of support groups. Lane County Behavioral Health information can be found here. And County information about wildfire resources can be found here.

He also suggests a daily self care routine which could include weightlifting, walking the dog or breathing exercises.

On the community level, Brubaker noted the vast donations and volunteerism in response to the wildfires as a sign of community resiliency.

“Even though we are living in a time right now where people are stressed to their absolute limits in ways they’ve never experienced before,” said Brubaker. “They still recognize the value of being compassionate and serving their fellow community members. That tells me that despite these traumas we are still resilient as a community. And that really gives me a lot of hope.”