How the smoke blanketing the Northeast Canadian wildfires can impact our mental health

Exposure to fires and smoke can increase rates of anxiety and depression.

Smoke from the record-breaking Canadian wildfires continues to blanket much of the Northeast and impact air quality.

Plumes of smoke composed of fine particles and toxic gases can negatively impact our physical health, causing damage to the lungs and heart and aggravating underlying conditions, such as asthma.

However, experts have said that thick fog and foggy conditions, such as those seen in areas like New York City, can also affect our mental health and well-being.

“There are studies showing that there is an increase in PTSD, depression and anxiety levels after fires,” Dr. Gaurab Basu, primary care physician and health equity fellow at Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. “Then, obviously, there’s the trauma of the impacts of fires on communities, homes, schools.”

“And so this is a pretty critical area for us to understand in terms of health impacts, which are not just physical but also mental,” added Basu.

A December 2022 review published in the journal BMC Public Health analyzed 19 studies and found exposure to mostly chronic and persistent smoke can impact mental health, although the study reviewers noted that more research is needed .

In addition to study subjects reporting anxiety and depression, studies have shown that being cooped up indoors due to smoke from fires led to feelings of isolation, stress, and frustration. “A variety of emotional impacts and responses associated with persistent smoking events including worry, stress, guilt, depression, lack of motivation, hopelessness, and helplessness,” another study found in the analysis.

Smoke from wildfires and poor air quality can also exacerbate existing mental health conditions in people, Basu said.

“Many of my patients who have mental health issues are definitely more prone [to] — and, frankly, appropriately — having a reaction to the traumatic events that are happening around them,” Basu said. “It causes mental health distress for any of us who may experience it, but certainly with people with mental health issues. Basically we can expect people to have a greater impact on their mental well-being.”

Research is ongoing to understand how smoke from wildfires affects the brain and cognitive function. A June 2022 study found that exposure to smoke from wildfires was associated with decreased alertness. While early studies suggest a link may exist, they stress that more research is needed.

Dr. Jyoti Mishra, an associate professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry, told ABC News she is studying whether smoking can affect the brain and, in turn, lead to mental disorders.

“We are now seeing this increasing frequency and intensity of these same types of disasters, and this is causing much, undoubtedly, more mental health stress and clinical symptoms, and our work and that of others has shown that,” he said .

Experts recommend that if you’re experiencing anxiety, a depressive episode, or other troubling symptoms, it’s important to recognize it and seek help if needed. Free help is always available by calling or texting 9-8-8.

“There is a vulnerability that occurs when there are disasters and fires, even from a distance,” Dr. Vickie Mays, a psychology professor at the UCLA College of Letters and Sciences, told ABC News. “You just need to check in with yourself and say, ‘Wow, am I getting an answer to this? If so, do I need to do something about it?’ Don’t just ignore it.”

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