While physical effects of wildfire and dust advisories have been widely discussed, researchers have recently begun calling the public’s attention to the mental health impacts of air quality advisories.
Last August, the air quality index numbers were off the charts and residents of B.C. were cautioned to stay indoors. Studies conducted nationally in relation to mental health impacts of climate change have begun to raise eyebrows by mental health professionals, including CHMA Vernon’s executive director Julia Payson.
“When we look at things like the air quality, whether it’s the dust we have in the spring or the wildfires we’ve seen the past two summers, there are a couple of things to consider,” said Payson. “Any time that we increase the risk for people to be socially isolated, there’s going to be an impact on mental health. During air advisories, we always hear about the long list of physical reasons of why you wouldn’t want to go outside but there’s a real risk when we increase someone’s isolation.”
She said the second part of this equation comes from anxiety surrounding the topic, often due to feelings of uncertainty and helplessness.
“With the wildfires last year, for some people, there was an increased anxiety around that and some of that could be around answering questions to your kids, or if you live near a fire area, being concerned that the fire may approach where you live. Then of course, there’s an additional piece about whether you’ve been through a wildfire yourself or there’s been an evacuation, and simply the smell of the smoke could be a trigger for someone.”
Whether it’s feeling concerned about wildfires or concerned about the greater state of the planet, Payson said that CMHA’s advice is for people to look for small ways they could make an impact locally. This could include educating yourself or your family about health risks, writing letters directly to those working to fight the fires, or offer community support to those most vulnerable or affected by isolation.
CMHA offers programs to residents to help combat mental health issues associated with isolation and anxiety experienced as a result of air advisories. This includes the crisis line, the Good Morning program and Bounce Back. The crisis line is a 24-hour, free, confidential service that provides emotional support for those in need by calling 1-888-353-2273.
The Good Morning program is a telephone service offered to individuals who are living alone or feeling isolated in the community. Calls are made 365 days a year often used as a safety check that provides some social interaction.
Bounce Back is a program used to teach people effective skills to help individuals (aged 15+) overcome symptoms of mild to moderate depression or anxiety, and improve their mental health. Participants can learn skills to help combat unhelpful thinking, manage worry and anxiety, and become more active and assertive. This service is available for free across B.C.
Similar to what Vernon mother and human rights lawyer Kelsey Robertson is calling for, Payson, who is also a mother herself, also thinks indoor facilities could be used to combat isolation during air advisories.
“I think utilizing indoor facilities would be really good for us and our community, and it’s really important for our families to not be isolated,” said Payson. “So every time we can take that step and reduce isolation and increase social connectedness, especially when there is something that’s a barrier to that like an air quality advisory, we’re going to be helping to improve the overall health of our community.”
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