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Climate Extremes Can Produce ‘Vicarious Trauma’, Even From a Distance

This story includes details on the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.

As worried and weary parents struggle to help their children process frightening events like the recent flooding in British Columbia, experts are affirming the complex reality of “vicarious trauma” and the need to take care of our own mental health, to maintain the emotional reserves necessary to help others.

Up until the B.C. floods happened, Australian expat and veterinarian Sonja Cehun and her husband had no problem answering any of the questions their two children, aged 10 and 13, might send their way, CBC reports.

However, when a devastating atmospheric river arrived on the shores of their adopted home in November and her 10-year-old daughter asked her why it was happening, Cehun told CBC she had no answers to give, and no comfort to offer.

Cehun realized that her own “emotional bucket” had run dry. The floods became the proverbial last straw after many months of witnessing tragedy both near and far—from family illness, to the summer’s heat dome, to the devastating 2020 bushfires in her birth country.

“I didn’t do a lot of editing of my own personal feelings about how things were. And so it’s hard… it trickles down to the children in every conceivable way,” said Cehun. The North Vancouver resident said she feels much anguish, even though she wasn’t directly harmed by the floods.

Robin Cox, a disaster and emergency management specialist at Royal Roads University, said even the second-hand experience of witnessing events like the B.C. floods through media reports can be profoundly upsetting to the psyche, especially if viewers live in an area that might one day face a similar threat.

Vicarious trauma is another risk, notes CBC. It’s an impact that is “typically experienced by those working with victims of trauma, such as a psychologist or doctor” and who are not directly affected. Vicarious trauma can also be experienced by people whose loved ones are under direct threat.

Katie Hayes, a senior policy analyst for Health Canada who interviewed survivors of the 2013 flooding in High River, Alberta, said trauma-through-distance (whether in space or time) is a real phenomenon that needs to be anticipated and understood.

As the climate crisis increasingly leaves its tragic calling card in communities across Canada, Hayes said everyone must attend to the painful emotions we may be feeling, and our children may be feeling, in response to all that is taking place.

As Cehun’s own emotional reserves run dry, she said she’s afraid of “running out of tools” to help her kids reframe all the scary things happening in the world. “Yes, they need more mental help, but how do you supply that when everybody’s buckets are empty?”

Cox recommended not shying away from painful conversations and meeting difficult events head-on, but in age-appropriate ways.

But, importantly, everyone needs to take care of their own hearts and minds first. “Put your oxygen mask on first and then help the person beside you, whether that person is a child or somebody else,” she advised.