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“Climate trauma” chronically affects survivors of wildfires

In November 2018, the Camp Fire – one of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history – wiped out 239 square miles, destroying 18,804 structures and killing 85 people. Three years later, a team of researchers led by the University of California, San Diego examined the psychological consequences of this devastating fire, and found that exposure to “climate trauma” resulted in increased mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression.

The scientists enrolled 27 individuals directly exposed to the Camp Fire (for instance, their homes were destroyed), 21 indirectly exposed (who witnessed the wildfire, but were not directly affected), and 27 control individuals. All participants were asked to perform a series of cognitive tests, while their brain activity was measured by electroencephalography (EEG).

The analysis revealed that fire-exposed individuals displayed increased activity in brain areas involved in cognitive control and interference processing (the ability to cope with intrusive, disturbing thoughts).

“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,” said study senior author Jyoti Mishra, an associate professor of Psychiatry at UC San Diego.  

“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.”

“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 wellbeing.” 

While none of the participants from the control group reported any trauma, 67 percent of the individuals directly exposed to the wildfire and 14 percent of those indirectly exposed reported struggling with traumatic effects even years after the event.

These findings could help guide efforts to develop resiliency intervention strategies in case of future similar events. “As the planet warms, more and more individuals will face extreme climate exposures, like wildfires, and having therapeutic tools that can address underlying neuro-cognitive issues will be an important complement to other socio-behavioral therapies,” Mishra concluded.

The study is published in the journal PLOS Climate.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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