Frontiers in Public Health (May 2021)

Psychological Symptoms Among Evacuees From the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfires: A Population-Based Survey One Year Later

  • Geneviève Belleville,
  • Marie-Christine Ouellet,
  • Jessica Lebel,
  • Sunita Ghosh,
  • Charles M. Morin,
  • Stéphane Bouchard,
  • Stéphane Guay,
  • Nicolas Bergeron,
  • Nicolas Bergeron,
  • Tavis Campbell,
  • Frank P. MacMaster

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 9


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Background: The 2016 wildfires in Fort McMurray (Alberta, Canada) led to a massive displacement of 88,000 people and destroyed 2,400 homes. Although no direct human fatality resulted, many individuals feared for their lives or those of their loved ones.Objectives: (1) To estimate the prevalence of post-traumatic stress, major depressive, insomnia, generalized anxiety, and substance use disorders in the adult population of Fort McMurray 1 year after the evacuation; (2) To identify pre-, peri-, and post-disaster correlates of mental health disorders.Methods: A phone survey using random digit sampling was used to survey evacuees. A total of 1,510 evacuees (response rate = 40.2%, 55.5% women, mean age = 44.11, SD = 12.69) were interviewed between May 9th and July 28th, 2017. Five validated scales were administered: the PTSD Symptoms Checklist (PCL-5), the Insomnia Severity Index (ISI), the depression and anxiety subscales of the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9, GAD-7), and the CAGE Substance Abuse Screening Tool.Results: One year after the wildfires, 38% had a probable diagnosis of either post-traumatic stress, major depressive, insomnia, generalized anxiety, or substance use disorder, or a combination of these. Insomnia disorder was the most common, with an estimated prevalence of 28.5%. Post-traumatic stress, major depressive and generalized anxiety disorders were almost equally prevalent, with ~15% each. The estimated prevalence of substance use disorder was 7.9%. For all five mental health disorders, having a mental health condition prior to the fires was a significant risk factor, as well as having experienced financial stress or strain due to the economic decline already present in Fort McMurray. Five post-disaster consequences were significant predictors of four of the five disorders: decrease in work, decrease in social life, poorer current health status, increase in drug and alcohol use, and higher level of stress experienced since the fires.Conclusion: One year after the fires, more than one third of the evacuees had clinically significant psychological symptoms, including those of insomnia, post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and substance use. This study helped identify individuals more at risk for mental health issues after a natural disaster and could guide post-disaster psychosocial support strategies.