Impact of wildfires on mental health – Experts link it with rising cases of PTSD!

Impact of wildfires on mental health
Impact of wildfires on mental health. Credit | Getty images

United States: Among the residents living in proximity to 25 large wildfires in California, it was found that there was a statistically significant increase in orders for antidepressants, mood-stabilizing medicines, and medicines to reduce anxiety, compared with the period which was before the wildfires.

Wildfires have evidently a serious impact on the physical health of individuals, especially those who were sheltering close to wildfire hotspots, as CNN Health reported.

The residents who live close to large wildfires in California were part of the study who were accounted for more than 7 million individuals and were part of the latest study. It was found that wildfire is associated with significant mental health change as well.

The recent study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Observation of the study

As per the data collected from the California wildfire hotspot dwellers, no rise in the count of psychotropic and hypnotic prescriptions medications was reported.

More of the patients who received a prescription were women and aged over 65, hence, the survey showed.

However, for full certainty, the researchers also wanted to make sure the trends were related to need and not merely a surge in people picking up their meds; so they calculated statistics for statins, medications that help heart health. They did not show an uptick in its usage when wildfires were near, as CNN Health reported.

Limitations of the study

This study has some limitations as it used commercial claims data records as a foundation hence limiting trend tracking only to people with insurance coverage.

Moreover, rural people who tend to be outside in areas more exposed to wildfires traditionally get less attention in the field of mental health care. However, most of them most likely have a bigger need for mental health care after a wildfire and the number of mental health service prescriptions didn’t show it.

Other scientific studies have reported risks of anxiety and depression that are heightened among individuals exposed to particulate matter or soot at higher levels. During the wildfire season, a lot of soot is produced as well.

Importance of the latest study

Dr. Jyoti Mishra, co-director of the UC Climate Change and Mental Health Initiative and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego said, “The strengths of this study are that it can look at waves in time before the fires as well as after the fires,” and, “Usually, a lot of work is done looking at the psychological distress from wildfires, mostly post-disaster. It’s hard to recruit people pre-disaster and then look at how mental health or other symptoms change over time.”

Mishra, who was not part of the study said, “This latest study is important because it corroborates the huge distress that people feel in the context of the wildfires,” as CNN Health reported.

Wildfires increase the risk of PTSD

Visual Representation | Credit – Getty images

Often it happens that after a family member or house is lost one feels depressed, shocked, or hopeless but in any case, it is independent of the reason. However, studies have established that fire exposure can accumulate post-traumatic stress disorder and disrupt sleeping patterns in individuals who never had mental problems previously.

Wildfires are also a factor that results in an increased number of instances of alcohol, drug use, and depression.

Climate change – a major factor in wildfires

The level of wildfires might possibly go higher due to the climate crisis, while more adults and younger people will be exposed to it. In 2020, the USA was devasted by wildfires amounting to 8 million acres and the number of fires has been going up with populations moving closer to the high-risk areas.

Mental health services – a priority area as per experts

Credit | Getty images

One of the major focuses of the study’s authors is to make mental health care a primary concern of public health officials during and after wildfire experiences. This includes organizing sessions where the exposed can get to health services and programs that are promoted to promote resilience.

Mishra added, “You would imagine that once the smoke subsides the problem would also subside, but that’s not necessarily true,” and, “It can really set in as long-term trauma, and so it needs to be seriously addressed,” as CNN Health reported.