Let’s Talk, Fort McMurray

Let’s talk.

A friend recently told me her husband, a big burly guy not usually prone to expressing his feelings, has begun seeing a therapist. Her husband, perhaps best described as “macho” if that word were still common place, decided of his own volition to seek help after realizing he was struggling to cope with the events of May 3, 2016.

When he told his wife what he said was that he never thought he would need to see a therapist, and he certainly never thought he would tell others he was doing it, but because it is so normal in our community post-wildfire that he felt it would be accepted and understood.

So let’s talk about it taking a natural disaster that saw tens of thousands of people evacuate in terror for people to understand that it’s okay to talk about mental health.

A study just released shows members of this community are suffering from PTSD. Sixty percent of the respondents in a survey indicated they were experiencing significant impacts from the fire, including flashbacks to the fire and the evacuation, trouble sleeping and anxiety. It is unlikely this comes as any surprise to those who lived through those days in May, as it would be difficult to experience them and not be deeply impacted. Perhaps more surprising is that even more people did not report these symptoms of PTSD, but the truth is that while some never will, others may find the mental health impacts surface months or even years from now.

So let’s talk about the reality that mental illness can strike at any time and for any reason; it can be related to a specific incident or be omni-present with no clear catalyst.

The RCMP recently shared some statistics regarding crime in our community. One would expect that as our population has dipped after the fire, our crime rate would fall as well. And yet, domestic violence has not fallen in the last quarter of 2016 compared to the last quarter of 2015, staying at the same figure despite the decrease in population.

So let’s talk about how that study showing that 60% of our residents suffering from PTSD symptoms could well be tied to domestic violence, as there is no doubt stress and anxiety plays a factor in life at home.

There are some other numbers I would be intrigued to see; work and school absenteeism rates post-fire, for instance, as our mental health and physical well-being are inextricably linked.

Let’s talk, my friends.

Let’s talk openly and freely about our experience on May 3.

Let’s talk about the mental health resources available to us, not just at this time but at all times in our community.

Let’s also talk about the lack of mental health resources for children and youth, our most vulnerable sector.

And let’s talk about how we need to move past judging those who tell us of their mental health struggles and how we need to stop pretending that we are impervious to mental health issues; because, like my friend’s husband, the truth is absolutely none of us know when we might experience a mental health crisis.

As someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression after the death of my mother, I can say I was one of those people who was convinced I would never be impacted by mental illness – you know, other than the fact that my mother experienced mental illness which undoubtedly affected my childhood, and all the other family members who exhibited symptoms of a wide range of mental health challenges. But me? I was untouchable, or so I thought until I realized one day that I too was showing signs of mental distress and that it was affecting my entire life.

Discussing our mental health isn’t a sign of our weakness; it’s a signal of our strength and our willingness to display our vulnerability in the hope of helping others. In 2016, Fort McMurray and residents of the Wood Buffalo region learned a lot about hope, vulnerability, strength and helping others. I believe we have the opportunity to be national leaders in talking about mental health because we experienced something most others in world will thankfully never encounter, and as we work through the impacts we are learning more and more about the importance of mental health in our schools, our workplaces, our homes and our communities.

So let’s talk, Fort McMurray. Let’s really talk, every single day. And let us lead this country in this journey, because through sharing our experiences we can help others to share their own – and learn to really talk about mental health.

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