Forest fires have cast a smokescreen on mental health in the Okanagan.

While most have been feeling the physical symptoms — burning eyes, sore throat and chest pain, to name only a few — for some, the smoke isn’t only affecting air quality.

“When we look at smoke at a physical level, it’s the very same for mental health,” Dr. Heather McEachern of Kelowna Psychologists Group said Tuesday. “And there are groups of people highly affected in our communities.”

It is unfortunate that a summer such as this brings back memories of 2003, when wildfires displaced tens of thousands of Okanagan residents from their homes and burned more than 230 buildings.

“The smoke can be a trigger of past trauma,” McEachern said.

What remains frightening about forest fires is not only how unpredictable they are, but most certainly their wild and uncontrollable flames.

“Anxiety is all about not knowing what is going to happen,” said McEachern, “and people are asking themselves, ‘will this affect me?’”

For those directly affected, such as first responders, trades workers and many others, McEachern stresses the importance of employers understanding the impact the smoke can have on employees.

“It’s an interesting time for certain work groups. Anyone who has to exert themselves in the outdoors because it’s their livelihood — that’s depressing for them. It brings home the threat and risk of the nature of your work.”

It’s a topic she agrees needs to be spoken about more with workers and the community, and one that WorkSafeBC readily addresses on its website.

“We think it’s extremely important,” said Gillian Burnett, spokesperson for WorkSafeBC. “Among the treatment services WorkSafeBC provides is resiliency support, mental-health recovery . . . and specialized mental-health treatment programs.”

Burnett also noted that WorkSafeBC chairs the first responders’ mental health committee, which formed in December 2015 to actively “. . . promote positive mental health and provide the leadership and recommended practices that first responders, their communities and their leaders need.” Alongside information sessions available to the public, the committee updates its website with resources for those seeking help or more information.

As McEachern sees it, employees in a male-dominated profession tend to seek less assistance from medical professionals than others. Embarrassment or shame seem to be a stigma that prevents employees from speaking up — a problem in the workplace that needs to change.

“Employers should foster a supportive environment for particle masks. When they aren’t providing masks, then people are going to feel foolish using them and won’t ask for one. They don’t want to be the only one.”

Providing essential safety gear, McEachern noted, is “the gold standards of a safe workplace.”

So, to combat depression or anxiety in times of high stress such as these past smoky weeks, McEachern stresses the importance of picking up indoor hobbies and moving physical activities to the gym.

“Depression tends to resolve when the depressive feature does. Once anxiety gets a foothold, though, it can be a bit sticky to get rid of it.”

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