FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - Genevieve Belleville is struck most about the many Fort McMurray residents who are having nightmares and trouble sleeping.
The psychology professor at Laval University in Quebec City is heading a mental-health study of people from the northern Alberta city who were forced to flee a voracious wildfire in May.
Two of her research assistants were returning Tuesday after spending three weeks in the community. They conducted clinical interviews with about 50 residents and another 300 people completed an online questionnaire.
Analysis is to begin soon on whether some are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Belleville said. A preliminary look at the data shows many in the group aren't sleeping well.
"They also have very painful memories," said Belleville. "Some of them have moved, don't want to go back to Fort McMurray because it's too painful to see the aftermath of the fire."
More than 80,000 people were forced to leave their homes when the wildfire roared through and destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings. The evacuation for some included a panicky, slow-moving drive out of the smoke-filled city as nearby trees went up in flames.
Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive memories, negative feelings and emotional reactions, such as trouble sleeping. Most signs are just normal reactions to an abnormal event, said Belleville.
"If the symptoms persist for more than one month, then we can talk about PTSD. Before that, it cannot be considered a disorder."
PTSD is the brain's way of being protective, she explained.
"When there's something that scares us with very, very extreme intensity, the brain keeps a trace. The brain wants to remember that it's scary, so we don't get in that situation again."
The study will also assess whether the residents have depression, anxiety and substance abuse problems, she said.
Preliminary findings should be complete in the fall and are to be shared with the people involved.
While most PTSD studies have focused on soldiers returning from war, Belleville said that when she heard about the Fort McMurray fire, she knew it was a great opportunity to examine the effects of another kind of traumatic event. She said she hopes the study will further knowledge of what helps and what hinders mental health recovery.
She's optimistic that, with more funding, her team will be able to keep in touch with residents and expand the study in the future.
More Fort McMurray residents have been getting counselling this year. Alberta Health Services says mental health staff in the city have received 20,000 referrals since May 10. They typically receive 1,200 referrals each year.
— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton