Fire trauma can affect the mental health of Fort McMurray children

As they hurried about their home packing for an emergency exodus, Shaun and Amanda Westhaver did not want to upset their five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. So the parents told their kids they were going on an adventure.

“We told them, ‘We’re going to go and have a great big sleepover with everybody from Fort McMurray,’” said Mr. Westhaver, who is the golf pro at the Miskanaw Golf Course at Fort McMurray’s MacDonald Island Park.

Much has been lost in the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, a rebuild that is expected to reach $7-billion to $9-billion. But the emotional cost of seeing fire in the sky and whole neighbourhoods ablaze is leading to another question: What effect has the disaster had on the children of Fort McMurray?

In what must have seemed like an instant to them, the comfortable lives of thousands of kids were severely altered. Where they ate, where they slept, what school they would attend if theirs was ruled unsafe, everything changed. For the first time, children saw their parents shaken, even fearful.

It is a powerful image that has mental-health experts anticipating a backlash of symptoms, from not talking to not eating favourite foods, poor sleeping and a return to thumb-sucking and bed-wetting for pre-schoolers. For school-age kids and adolescents, there are feelings of anger, irritability, guilt and fear the disaster will happen again.

“There really are a lot of concerns,” said Cindy Negrello, the Canadian Mental Health Services’ director of client services for Calgary. “Kids are going to be more confused. … Help your child talk about their feelings. Try to keep to as much routine as possible, such as meal time, rest time, bed time and story time. Parents can tell their young children what’s happening, but they don’t have to go into detail.”

Known as the gateway to the Athabasca oil sands, Fort McMurray has been a draw to young families that came north to take advantage of the job opportunities and the high wages that went with them. But a plunge in the price of oil had taken out thousands of those jobs and sent people packing. Then along came a demonic fire, and 88,000 people were on the move.

One of them was Vincent Agyapong, a clinical observer of Fort McMurray’s plight. He is an associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. He was also an evacuee, He was working at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray before being told it was time to leave. He was evacuated last Thursday and is in Edmonton contemplating what will happen to the kids and their parents when they return home or relocate.

Dr. Agyapong said a priority is getting kids back to school with their friends and teachers. Last Friday, 12,000 displaced students were informed they could register and attend school in their new location. On Monday, classes in Edmonton and Calgary had new students. It was a semblance of normalcy in a mad time of panic.

“Parents can begin to tell their kids certain stories of what happened,” Dr. Agyapong added. “That helps to replace the memories they have with more pleasant imagery.”

Far south of Fort McMurray, an Alberta town has been sharing the pain. Three years ago, a natural disaster submerged High River, taking out homes and ranches, forcing people to seek higher ground. Entire families were uprooted. With a $5-billion repair bill, it ranked as the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history – until fires hit Fort McMurray that were so hot they made trees explode.

Long-time High River resident Rev. Susan Lukey has seen and experienced the power of a river too big for its banks. When flood waters flowed into the United Church where she presided, Ms. Lukey climbed up to a shelf under the cross in the sanctuary and stayed there the entire night. Back on the ground the next day, she saw the look of disbelief and despair on the faces of those who lost everything.

“Watching the images from Fort McMurray brought out the same feelings,” Ms. Lukey said. “We all want to help, but we know it’s going to be a long road. Those first two months we felt we were running a 100-yard dash. About six months later, we were, ‘Oh, we’re running a marathon.’”

Getting kids settled and back to school was a key ambition in High River, too. Families who lost everything were placed in a trailer town dubbed Saddlebrook. Space was tight, with only a small outdoor playground for the kids. Ms. Lukey said her concerns were not just for the young ones. There was also nothing to offer the older teens to make them want to return to school.

“I felt for those kids,” she said. “Three years later, and we’re still feeling the effects here.”

As Fort McMurray copes and High River recalls, no one can say with absolute certainty what the years ahead will bring. There are some expectations. Robbie Babins-Wagner, CEO of Calgary Counselling Centre, tells parents to watch for telltale signs that are not part of a child’s normal behaviour (i.e. temper tantrums, increased clinginess, agitation). Even so, Dr. Babins-Wagner warned that “adults may find it difficult to gauge the emotional impact of natural disasters on children, who often hide their symptoms to avoid worrying their parents.”

To this point in the burning of Fort McMurray, the provincial government has been quicker to respond and get money into the hands of those who need it. Mr. Westhaver is appreciative of that. He also has a measure of pride at the way his children have responded.

“My kids were unbelievably strong,” he said. “They weren’t scared. They kept me and my wife grounded, actually. My wife was borderline freaking out. I was trying to stay strong for her and not freak out. But inside, I was losing my mind.”

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