EMPATHY Project Examines Mental Health for Youth

Brown et al. (2019) examined the mental health outcomes for youth following the Fort McMurray wildfires of 2016 by gathering data of grade 7-12 students from the Fort McMurray school system and comparing it to information from the EMPATHY project, gathered from the same demographic in Red Deer of youth who had not experienced a disaster.

The EMPATHY project information was collected from 3244 students in Red Deer between February and March of 2014.

This study looked at symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, tobacco use, self-esteem and quality of life. Youth who experienced the fire were also asked to participate in a child scale of PTSD, resilience measure, and impact of fire questionnaire.

Students filled out the surveys during school time on a laptop computer resulting in a total of 3252 students out of 4407 participating. Students over the age of 20 and under the age of 10 were excluded both in the students from Fort McMurray and the control group from Red Deer. The gender breakdown for Fort McMurray was equally male and female with 4% other or not declared. Red Deer students were 52% male and 48% female. 

Quality of Life Scores Down

Significant differences in data were found in 8 of the 12 measures tested, with depression and anxiety scores, use of tobacco and suicidal ideation being significantly higher in the cohort from Fort McMurray.

Quality of life and self-esteem scores were significantly lower for the Fort McMurray students. Brown et al. (2019) observe that these findings are consistent with other literature reporting negative impacts of wildfire on adolescent mental health.

Rates of anxiety and substance use disorder were comparable between groups, suggesting that the substantial mental health supports, put in place by schools, resulted in reducing what researchers would have expected to be higher in the cohort from Fort McMurray.

More than one-third of students from Fort McMurray (37%) met conditions for a probable diagnosis of PTSD. 

Support Programs Required to Mitigate Mental Health Risks for Youth

This study corroborates what other researchers report regarding the risk of diminished mental health for youth after having experienced a disaster, emphasizing the importance for government and professionals to focus efforts on mitigating these effects through policy, programs and supports specific to adolescent needs.

Psychological impacts occur immediately after evacuation and in the 2-5 years of the rebuilding phase. Long-term mental health issues can persist up to 10 years after the event.

Organizations and governments need to consider support programs specifically for youth as essential to improving long-term mental health outcomes and must be designed specifically for children and youth (p9).

  • PTSD is more likely to be present in youth after experiencing a disaster.
  • Community resources such as schools can provide vital interventions for long-term recovery.
  • Negative consequences of depression and anxiety can be reduced through access to appropriate interventions.

Sheri H Easterbrook


Brown, M., Agyapong, V., Greenshaw, A., Cribben, I., Brett-MacLean,P., Drolet, J., McDonald-Harker, C., Omeji, J., Mankowsi, M., Nole, S., Kitching, D., & Silverstone, P. (2019). After the fort McMurray wildfire there are significant increases in mental health symptoms in grade 7-12 students compared to controls. BMC Psychiatry, 19(1). 18-18. Doi 10.1186/s12888-018-2007-1