Natural disasters of all kinds inflict a significant amount of mental damage in addition to the physical devastation they also create. For residents of California, the most prominent threat to their natural environment has been and will continue to be wildfires. Over the course of the last decade, a series of serious incidents have displaced families and destroyed communities. As the trend of rising temperatures continues each year, a number of scientific investigations have identified important findings concerning the psychological toll of these traumatic events.
In 2007, a series of devastating fires burned throughout the southern counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura. The range of damage caused by the four major fires ranged from 9,472 to 197,990 acres and added up to more than half a million acres of land in total. With its scale and intensity, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger officially declared the event a national disaster on October 21st of that year.
In a social study report created by Professor Valerie Pang, Ph.D., of San Diego State University and an assortment of local teachers, the group of educators imparted information regarding local disasters to their students. As observed by each of the authors, many students during the 2007 fires were either directly affected by the damage, saw the fires from a distance or interacted with someone who had. Pulling from past research, Pang and colleagues drafted multiple strategies in educating children impacted by trauma including:
- Carefully guided discussions
- Avoiding the over-dramatization of events
- Encouraging questions and conversation
- Re-establishing a routine
- Refocusing on the academic curriculum
- Addressing and explaining emotional feelings such as loss
- Elaborating on the idea of resiliency
- Suggesting spending time with loved ones
The California fires of 2003 were also considered a significant disaster in the state’s recent history. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital delved into the varied and long-term effects of the event and compared the outcomes between survivors who did and did not undergo physical injury. While more than half were not injured, the observed participants did show a noticeable degree of depression and post-traumatic stress similar to those who were actually burned. The team concluded that substantial disruptions invaded the occupational, cognitive and emotional sectors of the survivors’ lives. The research also uncovers that a person’s perceived quality of life, depression and post-traumatic stress are more associated with emotional trauma rather than physical trauma.
Obstacles in trauma-related recovery
In a study conducted by researchers with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, the University of Iowa and the University of California, Santa Barbara, the authors stated that large disasters leave both parents and children dealing with stress and mental health recovery. The largest and most observed finding was that many children depend on their guardians for support, but they are often too preoccupied seeking help for their own ailments.
Another major hurdle of trauma recovery was highlighted in a study specifically concerning secondary trauma and vicarious trauma. The former refers to an onset of symptoms that occur in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while the latter represents the transferable effects therapists can experience by treating trauma victims. Although participants generally believed in the usefulness of recommended coping strategies including leisure activities, self-care activities and supervision, these beliefs did not translate into time devoted to engaging in the activities. Most importantly, there was no association between time devoted to coping strategies and traumatic stress scores. Intervention strategies for trauma counselors that focus on education of therapists and augmenting coping skills unduly individualize the problem.
Overall, this collection of research makes two findings evident: fire-related trauma can cause extensive mental health problems for many individuals and there still exist a fair amount of barriers blocking more improved treatment options. In order to overcome these obstacles and prepare for future disaster, California’s mental health institutions must address the implications of these studies and develop resources accordingly.
Some treatment providers throughout the state have taken the lead on this goal. One such entity is Sovereign Health of California. Sovereign upholds a strong commitment to keeping its clients resilient even in the face of a traumatic experience. A combination of therapy and other experiential programs are also available for those suffering from clinical disorders like PTSD and other mental health disorders along with addiction or co-occurring disorders. For anyone dealing with a mental or behavioral illness, please contact a member of our team on our website or call (866) 819-0427.
Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer