Emotional distress is common following natural disasters, and the psychological toll can linger for years, studies suggest. In California, where the state is in the midst of yet another highly destructive wildfire season, published research on the prevalence of mental health impacts among wildfire survivors in the state is scarce. However, a preliminary study by researchers at UC Davis found that around one in five people reported significant symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress up to 10 months after the 2017 North Bay wildfires. The region is once again under siege as firefighters struggle to contain more than 600 fires across the state — including in Lake County where Bennett lives — raising the likelihood of further mental anguish for those affected.
Wildfires, along with other natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, are intensifying as climate change accelerates. Already, the U.S. has faced nearly 40 such events costing at least a billion dollars each in the past decade, more than any period previously recorded. Mental health experts worry the psychological toll from these increasingly common cataclysms — with a pandemic now overlaid on top — could be unprecedented.
The country’s primary aid for mental health after disasters is the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Every year, the program distributes an average of $24 million, or 1 percent of FEMA’s annual total relief fund, to send mental-health workers into disaster-stricken communities and provide other support. But the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that this help usually lasts about a year, even though the psychological effects can linger for many more, and reaches only a fraction of survivors.
The FEMA-funded program has given out $867 million nationwide in its more than three decades of existence — just slightly more than the money one Defense Department agency lost track of in a single year.
To read more of Dean Russell, Jamie Smith Hopkins and Claudia Boyd-Barrett's article, please click here.