Expect climate trauma in an era of extreme wildfires

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NONo one who lived through the 2018 California wildfires will ever forget it. The Butte County wildfire, started by a power line fault, burned 240 square miles over 17 days from Nov. 8 to Nov. 25. It destroyed more than 18,000 houses and killed 85 people. Either way, the burning was a traumatic experience for those who experienced it. Now a new article has been published PLoS Climateprecisely defined How? “Or” what It was painful for survivors, offering new insights into the long-term psychological cost of extreme weather events.

The study, led by a team of researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), was based on surveys of 75 adults in 2019 and 2020, 6 to 12 months after the campfire. Forty-eight subjects lived in or around Butte, northern California; Another 27 people who were selected as a control group lived in the San Diego area. Of the 48 people in Butte County, 27 were directly affected by the fire – their land or home was damaged or destroyed by flames; the remaining 21 indirectly disclosed that they knew a friend or family member who had lost a home or property. 27 members of the control group were completely unaffected.

Researchers have found that even indirect exposure to climate trauma can have long-term effects on mental health in the form of depression and anxiety. In addition, the ability to concentrate and perform cognitive tasks was negatively affected; both sets of results add an additional element to the growing cost of climate change to the health and well-being of the world’s population.

The researchers began their work by asking 75 subjects to answer a standard screening question for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): “Have you recently been troubled by a past experience that made you believe you were going to be hurt or killed?” Response options were “not at all concerned”, “a little concerned” and “very concerned”. Among those exposed to direct fire, 67% responded that it was somewhat or very irritating, compared to 14% of the indirectly exposed group and 0% of those not exposed to fire.

The same subjects then completed two more comprehensive questionnaires measuring depression and anxiety. The Depression Questionnaire asked them 10 questions, including whether they had less interest or pleasure in doing anything in the past two weeks; felt depressed or hopeless; it was difficult to concentrate; and were chronically tired or had low energy. The Anxiety Questionnaire asked subjects whether they were anxious, nervous, or nervous; anxiety cannot be stopped or controlled; and was so restless that it was difficult to sit still. In both surveys, the four possible responses were “not at all,” “several days,” “more than half a day,” and “almost every day.” Tests were then scored from 1 to 27, with a score of one to four indicating minimal depression or anxiety; light conditions five through nine, representing conditions; 10 to 15 indicate conditions of moderate severity; and 15 or more are classified as severe.

The results were surprising. Those directly exposed to the fire scored an average of 10.1 on anxiety and 8.9 on depression, compared to 9.7 and 11.8 for those indirectly exposed, and only 3.2 and 2.6 for those not exposed at all. The results were particularly noteworthy because those directly and indirectly exposed scored more or less on depression and anxiety scales—indirectly exposed scored higher on depression, suggesting that secondary exposure to weather disasters can be as bad or worse than the first. . hand

“Overall,” says Jyoti Mishra, a UCSD neuroscientist and co-author of the paper, “depression and anxiety were one and a half to three times more common in the direct and indirect exposure group than in the unaffected group.”

The new study’s findings add to a growing body of work showing the psychological impact of extreme weather events. Previous research in journals Lancet Psychiatry and Psychiatric services showed a negative impact on the mental health of hurricane survivors. A 2021 study by Mishra et al found higher rates of PTSD among 725 fire survivors.

The results of a new depression and anxiety study are alarming. But then the researchers went further by examining the brains of the three groups. Subjects were given electroencephalogram (EEG) arrays to measure their memory, as well as their selective attention, distraction filtering, emotion processing, and more. equipped while playing a four-screen game designed to measure your abilities. Tests performed well on all tests. designed to measure the ability to filter out distractions, except for one.

Called “Middle Fish,” the game involved showing subjects a picture of a school of fish clearly centered. The fish in the middle face left or right, while the side fish face each other, and some face each other. Subjects had one second to ignore the fish on the side and click in the direction the middle fish was looking—a more difficult task than deliberate distractors and a shorter time frame. Here, there was a significant difference between the groups. For comparison, the score of the unaffected control group was recorded as 1.0; the indirect exposure group scored lower at 0.8, while the direct exposure group scored only 0.6.

“The captured fish interferes with treatment,” says Mishra. “Groups affected both directly and indirectly were more prone to this concern.”

EEG readings revealed another dimension of test results. In general, the lower the direct affect subjects scored, the greater the activity in the frontal and parietal regions of the brain, indicating that they were trying to play well but were nevertheless less effective than others. unopened group.

“The direct exposure group, in particular, exerted about 20 percent more effort than the other two groups,” says Mishra.

As the paper’s authors added in a statement accompanying its publication, “Our study suggests that climate trauma can affect cognitive and brain function, particularly in relation to anxiety processing.” Although the researchers did not measure the training effect of this finding, a reduced ability to filter out distractions may negatively impact work performance, child-rearing, and other activities that require attention. special attention, especially when driving or operating machinery. .

Performance in video games is not important in itself when it comes to human suffering in the wake of fires and other extreme events such as hurricanes and floods. But the research shows that the post-traumatic consequences of climate change are real and should be part of the thinking when it comes to regulating climate change activities and providing mental health services to survivors of related disasters. to the climate.

“Our study is a first step toward quantifying these effects,” says Mishra. “We need to keep this in mind as we think about the decisions we make for our communities and the impact these events will have on the people who live in the affected areas.”

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write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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