When fires strike, DU experts offer insight into the therapeutic needs of individuals and communities

For Coloradans and Westerners as a whole, fire season now starts early. And ends late.

In fact, as the climate continues to change, Western states are experiencing a year-round fire season. Consider 2021: On Dec. 30 of that already inflamed year, the Marshall fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Boulder County and caused more than half a billion dollars of damage. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado history. The previous record, held by the East Troublesome fire, was set just two years ago.

The Marshall fire left thousands of people homeless.

From incinerated buildings to charred forests, wildfires blaze a hard-to-miss trail of destruction. But an invisible burden often plagues the affected communities. According to a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, communities contending with the aftermath of wildfire demonstrate elevated rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.  

“We walk around in the world with a certain level of safety,” says Tiamo Katsonga-Phiri, who, along with Gwen Mitchell, leads DU’s Trauma and Disaster Recovery Clinic (TDRC). “We trust that our possessions will be safe. When you’ve undergone a traumatic incident, you lose your possessions, you lose your home, you don’t have that same level of comfort.”

Trained in trauma-based intervention, professors Katsonga-Phiri and Mitchell bring more than 30 years of experience to the clinic, which is housed in DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology. The clinic provides psychological support to individuals and communities that have experienced stress, adversity and/or trauma.

The first step for treating anyone experiencing critical incident trauma draws on psychological first aid or PFA. This is equivalent to the care someone would receive in the emergency room. Though many first responders are trained in PFA, their skills are often in need of updating.

“There’s some new wisdom around how to keep people fresh, how to make sure folks who are on the frontlines understand these best practices and aren’t jumping into trauma treatment which is counter indicated in the first few hours and days,” Mitchell says. In other words, it’s essential to avoid treatment that may cause further harm.

Well-trained students in GSPP’s International Disaster Psychology program receive PFA certification and are prepared to be part of the initial trauma response, whether working the Marshall fire or the 2021 King Soopers shooting in Boulder.

While two-thirds of people will recover from the initial trauma without added intervention, many will still feel a compromised sense of safety. For those needing further support, Katsonga-Phiri recommends trauma-based therapy, which offers a more targeted approach than traditional therapy. It helps individuals process traumatic events and develop coping skills.

“If you’re not doing trauma-specific therapy, those trauma-specific symptoms can go unaddressed,” Katsonga-Phiri says. “If you’re doing a trauma-specific therapy, you can hopefully address those symptoms sooner.”

Fires and other natural disasters are often seen as equal opportunity events, striking wealthy enclaves and disadvantaged communities alike. But the subsequent outcomes are often not equal. In fact, disasters typically exacerbate systemic inequalities, disproportionally hurting the most vulnerable communities.

Gwen Mitchell of DU’s Trauma and Disaster Recovery Clinic

But any community can experience what’s known as collective trauma. As Mitchell told the University of Denver Newsroom in early 2022, right after the Marshall fire had been contained, “Collective trauma is trauma that happens to large groups of individuals and can be transmitted across communities and transgenerationally. War, genocide, slavery, terrorism and natural disasters can cause collective trauma, which can be further defined as historical, ancestral or cultural. Some of the symptoms of collective trauma include grief, rage, depression, denial, survivor guilt and internalized oppression, as well as physiological changes in the brain and body that can bring on chronic disease. The good news is that collective resilience and post-traumatic growth can also happen, and there are many noteworthy ways that communities protect and support each other that help to prevent more severe psychological impacts.”  

Resilience will no doubt be needed and tested, as it seems the disasters are hitting harder and coming more often. In 2021 alone, 1 in 10 homes in the U.S. was impacted by natural disasters. That finding comes from property research organization CoreLogic. And according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at least 20 of those disasters resulted in losses of at least $1 billion each.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to climate anxiety.

Every one of those disasters brings about high rates of short- and long-term anxiety. And given that climate change promises a future with even more blazes, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, a phenomenon known as climate-related anxiety is on the rise. According to a global survey conducted last year, young people are particularly vulnerable to climate anxiety: 84% of respondents reported being at least moderately worried about climate change. Just as astonishing, more than 50% reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty.

Environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht pondered this phenomenon. In 2003, he coined the term solastalgia—a form of depression or distress caused by environmental change, natural disasters, extreme weather conditions and other upsetting threats to one’s surroundings or home.

Mitchell knows just how troubling this can be. “A sense of home is often grounding,” she says. “It often has generational meaning.”

From an existential perspective, Mitchell says natural disasters often force people to come to terms with random impact. Randomness often affects people in a visceral way.

Compounding traumas also complicate matters. Think COVID-19 and climate change. Mass shootings in schools and the invasion of Ukraine. Such incidents, Mitchell says, are becoming tragically more common. As we work to navigate through a complex world, people who have experienced similar situations, she says, can offer peer support.

“We often leave out lived experiences, folks who have recovered. There were efforts post-Aurora shooting to have survivors of the Columbine [shootings] go in and be peer support.”

For those experiencing climate anxiety, Mitchell says the first step is to understand our reactions are normal.

“The climate crisis is alarming and overwhelming, and people who evidence sensitivity to eco-anxiety are also deeply empathetic citizens. This should be celebrated, not pathologized,” she says.

Next, she says, try to stop exclusively focusing on the negative and search for reasons to be hopeful. Find connections in a like-minded community that is working to fight climate change.

“Don’t forget to take action; getting involved in activism can help you feel like your efforts are making a difference,” Mitchell says. “If you find that no matter what you do, you just can’t stop worrying, get in treatment, and talk to a therapist about your distress and ways to address it.”

For more information about the Trauma Disaster and Recovery Clinic, click here.

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