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Wildfire smoke harmful to mental health, psychologist says

Missing the outdoors, fear about climate change: The smokiest summer on record in the region is taking a heavy mental toll, says a local counsellor.
MASK UP — Zach Morrill and Kelly Kuin cycle through the heavy wildfire smoke in St Albert on Saturday, May 20, 2023. Masks such as the ones they are wearing can protect against smoke. JOHN LUCAS/St Albert Gazette

Record-breaking wildfire smoke has taken a heavy mental toll on St. Albertans, says a local counsellor.

Sabrina Roach, a registered provisional psychologist at Rivers Edge counselling, said her clients are frequently coming to her feeling distressed by the haze that has periodically engulfed the city, the result of massive wildfires that have destroyed homes, forests and livelihoods around Canada this summer.

For many, the root of the problem is disappointment.

“A lot of Albertans go away during the summer,” Roach said. “The poor air quality has been extremely significant for a lot of families who go camping and wanted to spend their summer outside enjoying the sunshine. This is particularly a problem in Canada where daylight hours are very limited, so we often get improved mental well-being in the summer.”

Roach has also noticed that the wildfires have activated a state of heightened concern about the environment — a phenomenon called eco-anxiety — in many.

“It usually comes up with younger generations,” she said. “People feel they don’t want to have children or start a family because of the state of the environment. Others feel helpless in the face of worsening climate change or feel like they’re doing their part but not seeing changes. That sense of hopelessness deprives people of hope and excitement for the future, and it’s one piece that can lead to depression.”

This year Edmonton has seen over 266 “smoke hours,” according to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the greatest number recorded since the agency began collecting data over 70 years ago. 

For those struggling with the smoke, Roach said seeking indoor activities that bring joy, talking to someone who can help you explore your recurring negative thoughts, and staying connected to family and friends can ease feelings of stress and disappointment.

“Making a new tradition with someone instead of, for example, always going to the lake, can be helpful. Just being more flexible in your thinking,” she said.

Roach said it’s easy to get stuck in what she described as two different traffic lanes: things we can’t change and things we can change.

“You can’t change the weather, so if you’re sitting in that lane, you’re expending all of this energy being anxious and upset over things you can’t change,” she said.

Roach said it helps to move into the second lane, where those struggling can adjust their attitudes, thought processes and behaviours.

It’s also helpful to move into a third lane, she said: things we can influence in a positive way. 

“Do your part: recycle, try not to use single-use plastics — little things like that. Just recognizing that you’re doing what you can to help can bring up those feelings of self-acceptance and self-worth.”

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