Fort McMurray wildfire PTSD studies ready to begin with $1M grant

Researchers at four Canadian universities will use $1 million to study Fort McMurray residents suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after the wildfire last May. 

The funding — from the Canadian Red Cross, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the provincial corporation Alberta Innovates — is being awarded to researchers at the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, Mount Royal University and Laval University in Quebec.

Researchers at Laval helped assess the mental health of evacuees as they returned to the city, just one of the studies done shortly after the fire was under control. 

"The work we did [that] summer was very much the spur-of-the-moment," said psychologist Geneviève Belleville. "[A] very small scale study that we did in order to see the immediate consequences on mental health of the wildfire."

The Laval researchers surveyed 379 people. They found 29 per cent of participants showed signs of PTSD, 26 per cent suffered from major depression and 36 per cent had insomnia.

With the new grant money, Belleville plans to study the long-term impacts of PTSD and other mental health disorders on about 1,500 wildfire evacuees.

"We will be able to really extensively study the impact of the fires on a large range of mental health issues," Belleville said.

The study will begin in May, one year after the wildfire, which is considered one of Alberta's worst, forced 80,000 people from their homes and destroyed over 2,400 homes and structures.

Fort McMurray a unique region

Researchers from the U of A, the U of C and Mount Royal have teamed up for a PTSD study focusing on resiliency in children following the wildfire.

One of the lead researchers, Dr. Vincent Agyapong, said the team will survey 5,000 students from Grade 7 to Grade 12 in Fort McMurray schools this fall and again three years following the wildfire.

Agyapong, who practises psychiatry in Fort McMurray one week each month, said he's seen an increase in patients with mental health conditions, including PTSD.

Despite the mountain of research that's been done on PTSD in the past, Fort McMurray needs its own studies into the mental health consequences of the wildfire, Agyapong said.

"If you just focus on treating people on the basis of research that has been done elsewhere, it doesn't take into account the local dynamics," Agyapong said. "Fort McMurray is a very unique region."

The studies are two of seven sharing a total of $3.4 million through a partnership between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Red Cross and Alberta Innovates.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook, Twitter or contact him via email.