Embers of Resilience: Navigating Mental Health After Alaskan Wildfires
October 4, 2023
In 2020, Assistant Professor Jura Augustinavicius and Assistant Scientist Georgia Michlig teamed up with Assistant Professor Micah Hahn at the University of Alaska Anchorage to examine existing mental health services in Alaska and gaps in support that impacted communities recovering from the 2019 Alaska wildfire season. The goal of this research, supported by the Bloomberg American Health Initiative, was to share these findings with policymakers and others to inform preparedness and response for future wildfire seasons.
To begin their exploration the team spoke with several people in communities that were directly impacted by the 2019 wildfire season by holding workshops and in-depth interviews with community members, and conducting key informant interviews with health professionals, policymakers, and disaster preparedness and response professionals.
Following these conversations, the team found that there were four recurring issues faced by wildfire-affected communities in 2019:
Lack of communication from authorities
Job insecurity and financial hardship
Fear of losing property
Poor air quality due to smoke
Throughout their conversations, community members continuously noted mental health struggles, the most frequent of which was “apprehension of the unknown,” due to lack of information in a rapidly changing environment.
Community members also reported feeling trapped, grief due to the impact on the natural environment, the effects of prolonged stress, and “returning ghosts,” or vivid recollections of past natural disasters. Their coping strategies included mentally preparing escape routes, talking to people who could empathize with their feelings about the wildfire, and becoming comfortable with potential instability.
It was evident that this community was still early-on in the recovery process so with this in mind, the research team developed a list of supports based on perceived impact and feasibility. This list included the following:
Ensure information reaches everyone, including those without internet connections.
Enhance early communication prior to the arrival of a public information officer.
Develop community-based preparedness programs where people engage in wildfire prevention and preparedness as a group rather than individually.
The team hopes to engage in follow-up studies that can build on these results to inform policy and practice-oriented intervention strategies. Future work could also examine how culturally tailored group grief counseling following wildfires might help communities cope with and recover from wildfires.
The University of Alaska Anchorage wrote an article about this study here. The team is also preparing results for publication.
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