This text is part of the special Mental Health notebook
Forest fires, floods, hurricanes… The consequences of extreme climate and weather phenomena can be devastating on a material level, but science is increasingly demonstrating their deleterious effects on human mental health. Director of the doctoral program at the School of Psychology at Laval University, Geneviève Belleville, along with its team, has developed an online intervention program to help disaster victims who present symptoms of trauma after a natural disaster.
In May 2016, fires in Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta, forced the evacuation of more than 90,000 people. Researcher Geneviève Belleville and her team surveyed 1,500 of them. A year after the tragedy, many still had symptoms such as insomnia, post-traumatic stress, depression, generalized anxiety or an alcohol or drug use disorder. Less than a third had received psychological help or medication.
“It is normal to have post-traumatic reactions in the month following a disaster, such as nightmares or startles, these will fade over time,” explains the psychology professor. But in some people, these symptoms will become chronic, either because they were already fragile to begin with, or because of stressors that accumulate after the disaster. » The degree of reconstruction effort, relocation, negotiations with insurance companies are just as many straws that can lead to breaking the camel’s back.
However, the vast majority of people try to resolve their problems on their own. “It’s very natural, human and healthy to try to face your own difficulties,” emphasizes Geneviève Belleville. The Resilient program offers self-treatment strategies, over 12 sessions during which readings, exercises, reflections and recommendations are suggested based on the problems identified.
The cognitive-behavioral approach, known to be the most effective in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, is favored. The cognitive part focuses on the perception of events, symptoms and their consequences, which influence emotions. For example, how do you react after a sleepless night? “There can sometimes be a dramatization of the symptom,” specifies the researcher. The goal is to make people realize the existence of certain shortcuts in thoughts, which amplify negative emotions unnecessarily. »
On a behavioral level, it is a question of understanding how we act when faced with these symptoms. “We implement useful behaviors in the short term, such as avoiding certain places that remind us of the traumatic event,” continues Geneviève Belleville. But in the long term, it’s like rust, it grows and the person will start to avoid things that they previously liked, which keeps the difficulties going. » A good strategy is to identify this behavior to gradually resume exposure to a place or situation, in order to confront the anxiety and difficult emotions associated with it.
To evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies, they were tested on 136 Fort McMurray evacuees with mild to moderate symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression and insomnia. According to the conclusions of Geneviève Belleville and her team, published in the journal Behavior Therapy, the program resulted in a significant reduction in these symptoms. Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Therapy showed that its beneficiaries were more likely to seek emotional support from their relatives and friends.
One more tool
When self-treatment does not work, or even causes even greater difficulties, it is essential to seek advice. “It’s one thing to avoid a street, it’s another to no longer be able to leave the house,” illustrates Geneviève Belleville. In more serious cases, dissociation may occur, that is to say the person is overcome by negative emotions and loses contact with reality.
A program like Resilient should not avoid psychological monitoring by professionals either. “It’s one more tool that we want to develop to reach a larger number of people,” warns the researcher. While it is only accessible to study participants at the moment, steps are underway to make the program available to a wider audience. Funding is needed to further invest in the platform, user handling and technical support, among other things.
“Solutions exist to support people who need them, but we will have to address the problem of access to psychologists in the public network,” concludes Geneviève Belleville. An essential need for the population in general, and more specifically for people surviving natural disasters, as extreme weather events increase as the planet warms.
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