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Chronic Mental Health Sequelae of Climate Change Extremes: A Case Study of the Deadliest Californian Wildfire


Introduction. Weather-related disasters, such as wildfires exacerbated by a rise in global temperatures, need to be better studied in terms of their mental health impacts. This study focuses on the mental health sequelae of the deadliest wildfire in California to date, the Camp Fire of 2018. Methods. We investigated a sample of 725 California residents with different degrees of disaster exposure and measured mental health using clinically validated scales for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder (MDD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Data were collected at a chronic time-point, six months post-wildfire. We used multiple regression analyses to predict the mental health outcomes based on self-reported fire exposure. Additionally, we included vulnerability and resilience factors in hierarchical regression analyses. Results. Our primary finding is that direct exposure to large scale fires significantly increased the risk for mental health disorders, particularly for PTSD and depression. Additionally, the inclusion of vulnerability and resilience factors in the hierarchical regression analyses led to the significantly improved prediction of all mental health outcomes. Childhood trauma and sleep disturbances exacerbated mental health symptoms. Notably, self-reported resilience had a positive effect on mental health, and mindfulness was associated with significantly lower depression and anxiety symptoms. Conclusion. Overall, our study demonstrated that climate-related extreme events, such as wildfires, can have severe mental illness sequelae. Moreover, we found that pre-existing stressful life events, resilient personality traits and lifestyle factors can play an important role in the prevalence of psychopathology after such disasters. Unchecked climate change projected for the latter half of this century may severely impact the mental wellbeing of the global population, and we must find ways to foster individual resiliency.

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