Managing Your Mental Health Post-Disaster
In September of 2020, as large fires blazed across twelve Western states in the U.S., thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes, and millions more waited, fearful and helpless as the fires approached. Those living in the vicinity of the fires watched the news and wondered if their area would be next.
After the fires were extinguished, people returned home. Some found their houses intact. Others lost homes and/or businesses, forcing them to rebuild their lives from the ashes. In addition to their physical losses and feelings of grief, many had to cope with emotional stress and symptoms of trauma.
After a fire, we tend to think only those who evacuated and/or experienced physical losses are victims. But the truth is many more people may indirectly be traumatized by their experiences with the fires, even if they never left their homes. Few people who fearfully witness a disaster — either in person or via the media — remain untouched.
A natural disaster may stir up many thoughts and feelings. A traumatic event, such as a wildfire, can affect survivors’ psychological ability to function and cope.
You may be traumatized by:
- Loss of your home.
- Fire damage to property.
- Family members, friends, or neighbors who lost their homes.
- Fighting the fire to save your house and perhaps those of your neighbors.
- Seeing a smoky gray or orange and red sky.
- The fire coming near your home.
- Evacuating and fearing what you’d find when you returned home.
- A trauma (such as a fire or other event) in your past.
- The smoky air causing respiratory problems.
- Seeing the damage to your neighborhood, even if your home was spared.
- Mental images of what could have happened.
Sometimes, you may not be aware you are impacted, because trauma symptoms may surface days, weeks, or months after the event.