How to cope with the emotional storm after the fire

A psychiatry professor who lives in Fort McMurray offers advice for evacuees and all Albertans trying to deal with intense feelings.


As they watch their homes and their community being consumed by fire, evacuated residents of Fort McMurray—and their fellow Albertans—are likely grappling with emotional turmoil. How can everyone best cope with the situation? We asked Vincent Agyapong, a Fort McMurray resident and an associate clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray. Agyapong himself was evacuated from Fort McMurray on May 5.

What emotions may some Fort McMurray residents be feeling right now?

Following a natural disaster of this magnitude, it is normal for people to feel a wide range of intense emotions, reactions that usually come and go or may persist for a while. Many people will feel jittery and anxious or disconnected and numb. It is normal for people to feel shocked and have a difficult time accepting the reality of what has happened. People may feel fearful that they may break down or lose control, and they may feel intensely sad at what has happened. Some may feel very helpless and vulnerable; others may have angry feelings that can be directed at God, the government or other people they perceive to be responsible for what has happened. After the fire has been put out, many people will begin to feel relieved that the worst is over and they can begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

What can all of us, the public included, do to deal with the feelings we may be having as we watch this unfold?

Reaching out for support from family and friends, as well as from social and support groups and organizations, is usually helpful in maintaining positive mental health. Connecting and sharing emotions with other victims of the fire can also have positive mental health impact.

How might these feelings be manifesting themselves?

Usually, the emotional response to a major disaster fades after a few weeks as people begin to establish a routine. However, for some, the emotional response may be so intense and persistent that it may start to interfere with their work, family and social functioning. If this becomes the reality for anyone that has been impacted by the fire disaster, then they will need an assessment and support from a mental health professional as they could develop enduring mental health difficulties, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What actions can the people of Fort McMurray and others take to cope with these powerful emotions in a healthy way?

People impacted by the tragedy need to reach out and accept the support of family, friends and loved ones. Isolating yourself is unhealthy and can lead to depression and PTSD. People should make it a point to engage socially and also do normal things with friends and family, especially things which have nothing to do with the fire disaster. Exercise also has many health benefits including mental health benefits, so people should try to exercise at least 30 minutes every day. People should make conscious efforts to avoid further stressful situations and to practise relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and yoga. Watching a family movie, eating healthy scheduled meals and getting plenty of scheduled sleep can also be very relaxing.

What do people need to do for themselves in terms of self-care in the next days and weeks to come?

People should engage socially, exercise regularly and practise mindfulness and other stress-reducing techniques. Individuals impacted negatively by the fire should minimize their exposure to the media content and reportage of the devastating impact of the fires. People should accept that their emotions are part of a normal response to the stress of the disaster. However, they should reach out for help if their emotions are overwhelming and interfering with their activities of daily living.

How can family and friends help people affected by this tragedy deal with their emotions?

 Family and friends can help the displaced deal with their emotions in a number of ways. They can offer practical support with provision of the essentials of life such as shelter, food and clothing. They can also offer emotional support by maintaining regular supportive contact with the displaced. Regular contact and reassurance from family and friends will help the displaced feel that others share their pain and are there to support them, which reduces their emotional distress.

When should you seek professional support in dealing with something like this?

It is time to take action and talk to a mental health professional if you experience any of the following intense and persistent symptoms:

  • intrusive symptoms, including recurrent distressing memories or flashbacks of the fire and intense or prolonged psychological distress or marked psychological reaction in response to symbols that resembles aspects of the bush fires
  • dissociative symptoms, including an altered sense of reality of one’s self or surroundings and an inability to remember important aspects of the traumatic event
  • avoidant symptoms, including efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts or feelings about or closely associated with the fire, such as media reports about the fire
  • arousal symptoms, including sleep disturbance, irritability, hyper-vigilance, problems with concentration and exaggerated startle response

In addition, if anyone develops persistent inability to experience positive emotions such as happiness, loving feelings and satisfaction, then it is time for them to take action.