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Fear and anxiety: The mental health impacts of wildfires

Wildfires tell a grim story of how humans are pushing the planet beyond its limits. Shockingly, the fires scar more than landscapes – they leave an unseen toll on our mental health.

A new study by Emory University reveals the significant and lasting impact that wildfires have on people’s lives.

Emergency department visits

Researchers looked at nearly 1.9 million visits to emergency departments across the United States between 2007 and 2018. This data was then analyzed alongside satellite information on wildfire smoke, making it one of the most detailed examinations of its kind.

The researchers found a significant correlation between exposure to wildfire smoke and a 6.3% increase in emergency department visits for anxiety-related issues. 

Psychological Impact

Women, girls, and older adults were more likely to visit the emergency department for anxiety problems during wildfires. This increased need for aid could be attributed to a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors.

Women and girls experience hormonal fluctuations throughout their lives, which might make them more susceptible to anxiety in general. Additionally, pre-existing biological conditions affecting the stress response system could play a role.

Older adults are more likely to have pre-existing mental health conditions that exacerbate stress responses and anxiety symptoms. Additionally, facing the potential loss of possessions, home, or even independence during wildfires can have a significant psychological impact on all age groups.

Even though boys and men also feel more anxious during wildfires, the study suggests they are less impacted than women and girls. This might be because they deal with anxiety differently, what society expects of them, or even how their bodies react to stress.

Broader implications

“Mental health is one of the most prevalent health conditions in the U.S. and our study found multiple pathways between wildfires and an association with severe anxiety disorders,” said study lead author Dr. Qingyang Zhu from the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health.

“Many people are already dealing with some mild or moderate mental health symptoms. Now imagine they wake up and see the sky covered in smoke, they’re likely going to feel even more anxious.”

Climate change is directly linked to a rise in anxiety, depression, and even eating disorders. This creates a big burden on healthcare systems around the world. 

Mental health issues on the rise

In the past 20 years, Earth’s temperature has risen, and rainfall patterns have changed. This makes wildfires much more likely. In places like the western US, which already have a lot of fires because of its climate, droughts, and plenty of flammable material, the fires tend to be bigger and burn for longer.

The number of people with mental health problems has been rising for 30 years, with anxiety becoming a major health concern globally. This underscores the critical need for healthcare responses that address not just the physical damage from climate disasters but also the deep psychological effects.

Prioritize your safety 

Individually, the best approach is to keep a safe distance from wildfires. If you live in an area prone to wildfires, familiarize yourself with evacuation plans and emergency procedures. Always follow the guidance of official authorities and prioritize your safety.

“The scary thing about climate change is it doesn’t have a clear boundary; you fear a lot about the unknown. Now we can use the knowledge we’ve gained to tell people there is no need to panic,” said study co-author Dr. Yang Liu of the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health.

“When you receive a wildfire smoke alert, close your windows, limit your outdoor activities, and don’t panic. Those sorts of preventative measures can potentially benefit the entire population.” 

The study is published in Nature Mental Health.

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