Year: 2019 Source: BMC Psychiatry. (2019). 19 (18). Published online 10 January 2019. SIEC No: 20190570

In order to examine the impact of disasters on adolescent mental health, this study compared population mental health survey data from two communities in Alberta, Canada: Fort McMurray, which experienced a major natural disaster, and Red Deer, which did not.

Data from 3070 grade 7–12 students from Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada (collected in 2017, 18 months after the 2016 wildfire) was compared with data from 2796 grade 7–12 students from Red Deer, Alberta, Canada (collected in 2014). The same measurement scales were used for both surveys. Both of these cities have populations of approximately 100,000, and both cities are located in Alberta, Canada. For this reason, Red Deer is an appropriate non-disaster impacted community to compare to the disaster impacted community of Fort McMurray.

The results of this comparison demonstrate that mental health symptoms were statistically significantly elevated in the Fort McMurray population when compared to the control population in Red Deer. This occurred for scores consistent with a diagnosis of depression (31% vs. 17%), moderately severe depression (17% vs. 9%), suicidal thinking (16% vs. 4%), and tobacco use (13% vs. 10%). Consistent with there being major mental health impacts from the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, self-esteem scores and quality of life scores were also statistically significantly lower in Fort McMurray. While the rates of anxiety disorder were similar (15% vs. 16%), the mean scores on the anxiety scale were slightly higher, with this difference reaching statistical significance. There were no statistical differences in the rates or scores for alcohol or substance use.

Our results are consistent with previous findings showing a significant negative impact of disasters on many aspects of adolescent mental, with a particular increase in symptoms related to depression and suicidal thinking. These findings highlight first, the need to identify adolescents most at risk of developing psychiatric symptoms after experiencing the trauma of disaster and second, the importance and necessity of implementing short and long term mental health intervention programs specifically aimed at adolescents, in order to help mitigate the negative effects of disasters on their mental health.