Phenomena like wildfires can be devastating to human lives and the environment. Now, a new study has found that people subjected to “climate trauma” are also likely to experience mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression.
The study, published in the journal PLOS Climate, observed people, directly and indirectly, affected by the Camp Fire of 2018, which was said to be one of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history.
In November 2018, the Camp Fire decimated 239 square miles of area, and destroyed 18,804 structures, killing 85 people in the process, Earth.com reported.
“Climate change is an emerging challenge. It is already well-documented that extreme climate events result in significant psychological impacts. Warming temperatures, for example, have even been linked to greater suicide rates. As planetary warming amplifies, more forest fires are expected in California and globally, with significant implications for mental health effects,” study senior author Jyoti Mishra, an associate professor of Psychiatry at UC San Diego, said.
For the study, the scientists recruited 27 individuals directly exposed to the Camp Fire, 21 indirectly exposed (individuals who witnessed the wildfir,e but were not directly affected), and 27 control individuals. The participants then underwent a series of cognitive tests, and their brain activity was measured by electroencephalography (EEG).
Fire-exposed individuals showed increased activity in brain areas associated with cognitive control and interference processing (dealing with disturbing thoughts), the study found.
“To function well day-to-day, our brains need to process information and manage memories in ways that help achieve goals while ignoring or dispensing with irrelevant or harmful distractions,” Mishra explained.
“In this study, we wanted to learn whether and how climate trauma affected and altered cognitive and brain functions in a group of people who had experienced it during the Camp Fire. We found that those who were impacted, directly or indirectly, displayed weaker interference processing. Such weakened cognitive performance may then impair daily functioning and reduce well-being,” Mishra added.
Following the analysis, it was found that 67% of the individuals directly exposed to the wildfire and 14% of those indirectly exposed reported having experienced recent trauma.
The study hopes to guide efforts in developing therapeutic tools that can address the issues of individuals facing extreme climate exposures, like wildfires.
Another recent study found that fishing was a very effective way to ease mental health issues. “We have been told on numerous occasions by our service users that if it were not for the fishing sessions, they don’t think they’d be alive today,” David Lyons, the founder of angling organization, Tackling Minds, said. “To now have scientific evidence to back up what we’ve been saying all along, is unbelievable, to say the least.”