Wildfires and Smoke: Mental Health Impact and Coping Strategies

Nearly 90,000 Afghans who were displaced by the Taliban takeover of Kabul came to the United States through Operation Allies Welcome (OAW) Response. Launched in 2021, OAW was a coordinated interagency initiative that mobilized federal government offices, national non-profit organizations, state and local resettlement agencies, private businesses, and other stakeholders to resettle and support Afghan newcomers. As Afghans arrived in the United States, resettlement agencies joined forces with federal partners, healthcare systems, public health professionals, social service providers, and community-based organizations to provide appropriate assistance.

Afghans who have recently resettled in the United States are adapting to their new lives while contributing to their communities and seeking meaningful opportunities for both young people and adults. They are also navigating challenges related to the trauma of forced migration and the difficulty of managing new circumstances around healthcare, employment, education, and other essentials–in English. 
As wildfires become more common across North America, it is important for organizations that partner with Afghan newcomers communities to provide clear information about how to avoid the harmful effects of wildfire smoke and how to stay safe from fires. It is also essential to acknowledge that wildfires and smoke may affect mental and emotional well-being among resettled Afghans.

Wildfires and Wildfire Smoke as a Mental Health Issues

Wildfires and wildfire smoke affect not only physical health but also mental and emotional well-being. As more communities experience these natural disasters, it is important to recognize and address their potential mental health effects. Recent studies show that wildfire and wildfire smoke exposure can lead to symptoms ranging from stress to depression to panic, even after the event. Individuals whose lives are disrupted by smoke may experience:

  • Fear, anger, sadness, and hopelessness about immediate changes in the environment, such as the sight and smell of smoke and ash, an orange or darkened sky, etc.; or, more generally, distress about the changing climate;
  • Isolation, loneliness, lack of motivation, and stress as a result of staying at home; 
  • Uncertainty, stress, and anxiety related to the disruption of outdoor physical activity, as well as the disruption of work, school, and social activities.

Individuals who are forced to evacuate because of a wildfire may experience post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety even long after reaching physical safety. Evacuation may be especially challenging for resettled Afghans who were forcibly displaced from their homes in Afghanistan.

Organizations that partner with Afghan newcomers should consider offering education and opportunities for coping with the effects of wildfires and wildfire smoke. 

These might include:

  • Gatherings to connect with fellow community members, strengthen relationships, and share feelings and concerns about fires, smoke, and other stressors;
  • Opportunities to relax while engaging in fun, healthy activities or sharing healthy meals with fellow community members;
  • Information about how to engage in activities while it is unsafe to be outdoors, or how to improve indoor air quality (e.g., how to make a filter);
  • Educational materials and resources, such as concrete guidance on how to interpret the air quality and avoid smoke exposure, or instructions on how to prepare an emergency kit;
  • Opportunities for parents and caregivers to talk with children about safety measures as well as children’s feelings and concerns about wildfires and smoke;
  • Referrals to mental health providers and counselors for those who require additional help.

Some community organizations have found culturally concordant social support programming to be a valuable way to address mental health struggles among resettled Afghans because mental health tends to be a culturally defined subject. Social support gatherings provide a group setting to learn, share concerns, and collectively strategize about any stressor. They can be adapted to address wildfires and wildfire smoke.

Meanwhile, educational programming that highlights concrete, actionable information may allow individuals to feel informed and prepared, which in turn may reduce stress and anxiety. It is particularly effective to pair guidance with the resources (e.g., emergency kit items, N95 masks, HEPA filters) to carry it out.

Addressing the Mental Health Impact of Wildfires in Washington

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Spokane (WA) has been offering a parenting program called Attachment Vitamins for newcomer parents and caregivers of children in the prenatal to 5-year-old range. This 10-week, trauma-informed program is intended to address the long-term somatic effects of stress and anxiety. IRC Spokane guides groups of 8-10 parents or caregivers at a time through the Attachment Vitamins curriculum, with a focus on building attachment and supporting healthy early childhood development after forced displacement.

In the summer of 2023, Afghan and Ukrainian families enrolled in Attachment Vitamins were affected by nearby wildfires and weeks of smoky air. Madison Beal, IRC Spokane’s Health and Wellness Programs Manager, reports that a few clients needed to be temporarily evacuated and the sight of dense smoke was particularly triggering for many clients. “It’s not an uncommon sight for many of them. We kept hearing [from clients], ‘We thought something really, really bad was going to happen.'"

In response, IRC Spokane staff quickly translated Trinka and Sam and the Big Fire, a resource that includes a coloring book for children and a conversation guide for parents to help families talk about worries they may have related to a major fire. Combining elements of art therapy and child-parent psychotherapy, Trinka and Sam and the Big Fire gave families an opening to talk about their concerns and fears, and in some cases surfaced children’s feelings about wildfires and smoke that parents themselves had been unaware of.

IRC Spokane also partnered with local universities that have clinical master’s programs, mobilizing resources and sending referrals for clients particularly affected by wildfires.

IRC Spokane is laying plans to provide clients with more education and resources to protect themselves from physical harm during the next wildfire season. But Beal notes that it’s important to acknowledge that the wildfires and smoke have mental health effects and are potentially retraumatizing. “It’s our hope that IRC’s health programming and mental health programming will work in tandem on this concern.”

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