Patty Wellborn

Email: patty-wellborn@news.ok.ubc.ca


 

A photo of psilocybin mushrooms

A new UBCO study finds people are using small doses of psychedelics not for recreational purposes, but to combat anxiety and depression.

An international study led by UBC Okanagan researchers suggests repeated use of small doses of psychedelics such as psilocybin or LSD can be a valuable tool for those struggling with anxiety and depression.

The study, recently published in Nature: Scientific Reports, demonstrated fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and greater feelings of wellbeing among individuals who reported consuming psychedelics in small quantities, or microdosing, compared to those who did not.

Microdosing involves regular self-administration of psychedelic substances in amounts small enough to not impair normal cognitive functioning.

Considering this is the largest psychedelic microdosing study published to date, the results are encouraging, says UBCO doctoral student and lead author Joseph Rootman.

“In total, we followed more than 8,500 people from 75 countries using an anonymous self-reporting system—about half were following a microdosing regimen and half were not,” Rootman explains. “In comparing microdosers and non-microdosers, there was a clear association between microdosing and fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress—which is important given the high prevalence of these conditions and the substantial suffering they cause.”

The study is also the first to systematically examine the practice of stacking, or combining microdoses of psychedelics with other substances like niacin, lions mane mushrooms and cacao, which some believe work in conjunction to maximize benefit.

Rootman works with Dr. Zach Walsh, a psychology professor in UBCO’s Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Dr. Walsh says it’s an exciting time for research in this area.

“These findings highlight adults who are microdosing to treat their mental health conditions and enhance their wellbeing—rather than simply to get high,” says Dr. Walsh. “We have an epidemic of mental health problems, with existing treatments that don’t work for everyone. We need to follow the lead of patients who are taking these initiatives to improve their wellbeing and reduce suffering.”

Study co-author Kalin Harvey is the chief technology officer of Quantified Citizen, a mobile health research platform. He says this study highlights the potential of citizen science.

“The use of citizen science allows us to examine the effects of behaviours that are difficult to study in the lab due to regulatory challenges and stigma associated with the now discredited ‘war on drugs.’”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians personally experience a mental health problem or illness each year. This is one of the many reasons Dr. Walsh says conducting innovative psychological research is imperative.

“These cross-sectional findings are promising and highlight the need for further investigation to better determine the impacts of factors like dosage and stacking,” explains Dr. Walsh.

“While the data is growing to support the use of psychedelics like psilocybin in large doses to treat depression and addiction—our data also helps to expand our understanding of how psychedelics may also help in smaller doses.”

A photo of the the Similkameen River

The Similkameen River is one of eight regions that are part of the Canadian portion of the Columbia River Basin. Photo credit Cindy Boehm.

What: One River, Ethics Matter (OREM) conference
Who: UBCO’s Jeannette Armstrong, ʔaʔsiwɬ Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, traditional knowledge keepers, environmental experts, academic and religious scholars
When: November 17 and 18, from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm both days
Venue: Virtually via Zoom

As the world’s leaders convened at COP26 to discuss actions to address climate change, plans were finalized in the Okanagan for the annual One River, Ethics Matter (OREM) conference taking place later this month.

The 2021 One River Ethics Matter conference is hosted by the Okanagan Nation Alliance and UBC Okanagan. This will be the eighth annual event and it will focus on the Indigenous-led work of the Syilx nation with kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓—restoring ntytyix (salmon)—to the Okanagan and Upper Columbia Rivers.

The main objective of the two-day conference is to discuss the review process now underway to modernize the 57-year old Columbia River Treaty. Participants include traditional ecological knowledge keepers, environmental experts, along with academic and religious scholars from both sides of the 49th parallel.

Dr. Jeannette Armstrong, a Syilx knowledge keeper and UBCO associate professor who was recently appointed a Royal Society of Canada Scholar, will be one of several speakers at the event. Other leaders and panel experts include Grand Chief ʔaʔsiwɬ Stewart Phillip, who is president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis, University of Idaho Professor Emerita Barbara Cosens, along with Indigenous youth experts, historians, biologists, policy officials and representatives from the Roman Catholic Church.

Pauline Terbasket, executive director of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, has been participating in the OREM conference since the first session in Spokane in 2014.

“These gatherings have been opportunities to feel the reality and impacts of colonization upon Indigenous Nations and the devastating impacts of the Columbia River Treaty. They also provide an opportunity to share stories that are familiar to all tribes along the Columbia River,” says Terbasket. “As the Indigenous people of the Columbia Basin, we are all salmon people, tied to the river for sustenance and to carry our responsibilities to care for all our lands, resources and peoples as we have since time immemorial.”

The OREM conference series is an ethics consultation process for improving the quality of ethical decision-making for the Columbia River.

Lesley Cormack, UBC Okanagan’s deputy vice-chancellor and vice-principal, will provide opening remarks at the event.

“The lasting and far-reaching effects of both colonization and climate change have taken a toll on the Columbia River basin, as with other natural environments around the world,” says Cormack. “Now, more than ever, it is essential that we come together to make thoughtful, ethical decisions that will support healthy and sustainable environments as well as truth and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.”

About OREM

Salmon have been blocked from reaching Canada’s Upper Columbia River after the Grand Coulee Dam was built in Washington State some 80 years ago. In 1964, Canada and the United States implemented the Columbia River Treaty to develop the hydroelectric potential of the Columbia River Basin and to manage flood risk.

Grounded in respectful dialogue the conference is a part of the Ethics and Treaty Project, which aims to increase public understanding of the Columbia River Treaty and provide an interdisciplinary forum to discuss shared stewardship of the river in the face of climate change. Alternating between the United States and Canada, the conference is jointly hosted by an Indigenous sovereign nation and an academic institution.

The 2021 OREM conference is free and open to the public. More information can be found at: riverethics.org

People can register for the event at: ubc.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_aKQEqnHxQ3y7L0TIMqb52A

A photo of Marion Buller

Marion Buller, retired judge and former chief commissioner of Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

What: Redefining Community—an evening with Marion Buller, as part of UBCO’s Distinguished Speaker Series
Who: Marion Buller, Indigenous Rights Advocate, retired judge and former Chief Commissioner of Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
When: Thursday, October 28 beginning at 7 pm
Venue: Zoom webinar

Four weeks ago, Canadians from coast to coast were given an opportunity to pause, reflect and honour the lost children and survivors of the Indian Residential School System, their families and communities.

Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history, and ongoing intergenerational impacts of the residential school system, is a vital component of the reconciliation process—a process UBC Okanagan committed to in 2019 with the signing of its declaration in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

On Thursday, October 28, UBCO’s Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences welcomes retired judge and former chief commissioner of Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Ms. Marion Buller as the next distinguished speaker.

Ms. Buller has been a leader in Indigenous rights advocacy throughout her career. A member of the Mistawasis First Nation, she was the first Indigenous woman to be appointed to the Provincial Court of British Columbia.

In this informative, thought-provoking talk, Ms. Buller will share her journey into law, what was uncovered during the MMIWG inquiry, and discuss the role of relationships, trust-building and community in moving truth and reconciliation forward.

The Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ Distinguished Speaker Series brings compelling speakers to the homes of Okanagan residents to share their unique perspectives on issues that affect the region,  country and world.

This virtual event is free and open to all, but online pre-registration is required.

To register, visit: speakers.ok.ubc.ca

A woman looking at her smartphone with concern

While there is a reluctance to incorporate positive COVID-19 messaging because of potentially creating perceptions of false security, new research suggests that by not providing positive outlooks, there is a risk of alienating and disengaging people aged 18 to 40 years.

COVID-19 has become a story of numbers. How many people fell ill, how many have died, the rates of infection, and the percentage of vaccinated—and unvaccinated—people.

But a new study published in the Public Library of Science journal says public health messages about COVID-19 don’t resonate with a large segment of the population. The study was conducted by UBC Okanagan’s Dr. Lesley Lutes and Simon Fraser University’s Dr. Scott Lear.

Dr. Lutes, who teaches psychology in UBCO’s Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, says their study looks at the disconnect between public health messaging and adults aged 18 to 40. The research determined that young adults feel highly responsible for protecting themselves and others against the spread of COVID-19. But they also face confusion when trying to comply with public health orders due to what Lutes calls inconsistent messaging and ineffective outreach strategies.

Why do you think people aged 18 to 40 years old are particularly worried about COVID-19?

Contrary to mass media coverage, participants in our study were highly concerned about the spread of COVID-19. They perceive it as their responsibility to protect themselves and their loved ones. Similarly, recent research found younger adults have a higher perception of risk vulnerability with respect to COVID-19, as many of them faced unique challenges due to working in high-risk, low-paying essential service occupations, as well as having higher levels of financial insecurity, unpaid sick days and mental burden. Many simply didn’t have the option of working from home and they have been out working in our communities this entire pandemic.

Study participants say public health messaging has missed its mark with this group of adults. How so?

Our participants expressed concerns and confusion around current public health messaging. Most existing public health messaging focuses on the collective good using inclusive language, providing ideas for social safety or emphasizing the risk of contracting COVID-19, which may elicit fear.

There is a reluctance to incorporate positive messaging because of potentially creating perceptions of false security, though available evidence does not support this concern and suggests compensation is not discernible at a population level. Our research suggests by not providing positive outlooks, there is a risk of alienating and disengaging this age group, especially when we’re looking at a long-term pandemic response success.

You talk about hope and positive words when discussing public health messaging. Why?

We strongly believe hopeful ideas, besides mathematical modelling, should acknowledge what the public has sacrificed. This was especially true at the start of the pandemic when the goal was to flatten the curve. The participants in our study said they were looking for active and ongoing exposure to positive messaging in order to generate positive attitudes and emotions.

While our participants agree it is often difficult to change behaviours of those who hold on tightly to their beliefs, positively framed messaging may bring people together to facilitate collective change.

Your study talks about how the public health information outreach methods for their group were ineffective, confusing and often negative. What would you suggest?

Our findings suggest messages for young adults should not only be positively framed, but also reflect the lived experiences of this demographic. As well, they should be delivered on an accessible platform—a platform we know this demographic uses. Respectfully, we urge stakeholders including government officials and media outlets to report and create messaging that answers young adults’ concerns. Tailored messaging is needed, desperately.

Does your team have a plan on how to support young adults dealing with vaccine hesitancy?

Many people believe that implementing vaccine passports and mandates would solve the problem of hesitancy, concerns and misinformation. But it does not. We are not living in the 1970s when seatbelt laws came into place and indoor smoking was banned in commercial areas. There was no internet back then. There was no social media that gave everyone a voice to communicate–for better and worse.

The concerns of young adults are real. Women being worried about whether they could have children if they take this vaccine is real. We need to meet them where they are at, talk about their worries, clarify the science and the data, then help them reach a decision based on the information provided.

We need to have these conversations right where they are getting their information—online—and then use science, compassion and engagement to help support everyone in the decision-making process.

Lives depend on us helping everyone feel heard, valued and empowered to make informed decisions.

Sustainability students in the field

UBCO’s new bachelor of sustainability degree will equip students with the breadth and compassion to find solutions to sustainability issues such as climate change, land and water use, energy transition, and social and economic inequality.

UBC Okanagan will soon be home to Canada’s first undergraduate degree dedicated exclusively to sustainability.

The Bachelor of Sustainability (BSust) is a four-year direct-entry program dedicated to inspiring students to address complex environmental challenges by integrating knowledge from different academic subjects, with hands-on and community-based learning.

The program combines a broad, interdisciplinary approach, with focused concentrations that develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes of students who want to become good citizens of the Earth.

“This is the type of learning opportunity that prepares students to become the innovators and leaders needed to meet the environmental challenges that we face now, and in the future,” says the program’s inaugural director and associate professor of earth sciences Dr. Kevin Hanna.

“Heat waves, record-breaking wildfire seasons, drought—these are major threats to life as we know it, and though a lot of people define sustainability in ways that seem clear, obvious and needed, it can be tough to put sustainability into action. The BSust is about building the skills to go from hopeful to operational.”

Students will choose from one of four concentrations: environmental analytics, environmental conservation and management, environmental humanities or green chemistry.

Program graduates will be well-positioned to seek employment in numerous sectors including natural resources management, environmental impact assessment, project management and education, or to continue their studies in a graduate-level program.

Dr. Lesley Cormack, deputy vice-chancellor and principal of UBC Okanagan, is proud UBCO is leading the way in sustainability education.

“UBC has a long track record of innovative practices and programs, and I’m thrilled that we’re adding to this record by establishing the BSust program,” says Dr. Cormack.

“The creation of this program is a bold step towards realizing UBC’s vision of inspiring people, ideas and actions for a better world and fulfilling its commitment to advance sustainability across teaching, learning and research.”

The program also aligns with UBC’s commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

All students are required to take an Indigenous Studies course that introduces concepts of Indigenous knowledge, which will contribute to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

The new credential will strengthen UBC Okanagan’s leadership in sustainability and promote a greener future for British Columbia and the planet.

“Sustainability education enlarges our understanding of the world we inhabit and seeks solutions to put us on a path towards a cleaner, brighter future,” says Anne Kang, BC’s Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Training.

“Training students with the necessary tools to actively contribute towards initiatives like our CleanBC plan creates opportunities to reduce pollution and protect our climate for future generations.”

The new program will accept its first intake of students in September 2022.

For more information about the BSust, visit: sustainability.ok.ubc.ca

Picture of Michael Friedland cycling

UBCO student Michael Friedland cycles along the dirt-covered Dempster Highway as he journeys to Tuktoyaktuk.

If you ask UBC Okanagan student Mikey Friedland what he did this summer, make sure you have lots of time. He has a long story. But it’s worth every minute.

Friedland, a fourth-year international relations student, cycled from the 49th parallel (the Canada-US border at Osoyoos) to Tuktoyaktuk (the Inuvialuit town nestled on the Arctic Ocean) by himself.

His goal was to raise awareness and money for the Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) Ride Don’t Hide initiative. So far, he has raised more than $27,000, more than twice doubling his fundraising goal.

Friedland, who has dreams of being a documentary filmmaker, left Osoyoos on May 21 with a secondhand touring bike, panniers stuffed to the limit, his camera, a drone and absolutely no long-distance cycling experience.

“When I started, I took a photo of myself at the Welcome to BC sign in Osoyoos. When I saw the same sign from the opposite side, crossing into the Yukon, it was absolutely the coolest thing in my entire life.”

Before the pandemic hit, Friedland was scheduled to go on an educational exchange with UBCO’s Go Global program. When that was cancelled, he took a year off school and moved to Revelstoke to spend the winter skiing. This spring, even though surrounded by friends, he found himself feeling lonely and perhaps dealing with a bout of seasonal depression. He was at a loss. Unhappy for no apparent reason and with little motivation.

“Having a goal is very important to me,” he says. “When I’m working toward something, that’s when I’m at my happiest and best. So, I found a goal, riding my bike as far north as I physically can before going back to school.”

Friedland grew up in Toronto and entered university with an undeclared major four years ago, but the more he learned during his time in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the more his eyes opened to the vast opportunities his education could provide.

“I took a ton of different courses — philosophy, political science, psychology, gender and women’s studies. The interdisciplinary nature of the international relations program drew me in. I love learning about the world, and this program really gives you the opportunity to keep learning.”

Friedland used the summer to hone his documentary-making skills, creating a film series chronicling his journey. So far, three episodes are available to watch on his YouTube channel. Two more episodes — showing his travels through northern BC, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories — will be released in September. All told, his route surpassed 4,000 kilometres, including nearly 25,000 metres of vertical climbs.

“This hasn’t been an easy journey, but it has certainly been an amazing experience,” he says, describing riding sometimes until midnight and then setting up camp. “Every day I’m in a new area, and every few hours, a new ecosystem.”

During his journey, Friedland was invited to a barbeque dinner by a Tlingit elder, eating alongside Indigenous people taking part in the Warriors Walk from Whitehorse to Kamloops. He was invited to the community fish camp in Fort McPherson, and shown the process of cleaning and drying Koni and Whitefish. He’s been offered places to sleep, showers, food, water, friendships and of course money.

But what he’s really realized, at the age of 23 and through daily mental health checks, is that he’s ok. He’s alone. And he’s doing just fine.

“I’m realizing more and more that mental health is a part of my life and something I need to personally think about every day,” he says. “I am committed to making more of a conscious effort to check in with myself and be honest. Because everybody has times when they are doing well and times when they are not.”

There is a lot of time to think while cycling long distances on a bike that weighs, when fully loaded, about 90 pounds. Time that Friedland has used to commit to continuing the conversations about mental health while raising funds for the CMHA.

All contributions will be divided between three CMHA branches: Shuswap/Revelstoke, Northern BC, and the Yukon. This local approach allows the funds to be allocated to the programs that are most needed in each community.

“I’m really hoping my ride helps bring mental health out in the open. It’s been important to me because mental health has been tucked away for so long — and that has real consequences. Since I started this journey, the number of messages and feedback from people has been inspiring and heartwarming. It has let me know I’m on the right path.”

According to the CHMA, one in five Canadians will have a mental health crisis this year. But Friedland reminds everyone that five out of five Canadians have mental health. The CMHA’s mission is to make sure every Canadian has access to mental health care.

“Mental health is something to protect, something we can strengthen. When people receive the right services and support, mental illness doesn’t take hold. But every year, 1.6 million Canadians don’t get the mental health care they need. If I can change that one little bit, then I’ll consider every mile, every flat tire, bear scare or moment of isolation totally worth it.”

Contributions to his campaign can be made at: cmha.donordrive.com/participant/mikeyfriedland

Michael Friedland in front of an Arctic Ocean sign

Michael Friedland chose the journey of Osoyoos to the arctic circle and raised more than $25,000 for mental health awareness.

photo of a hand stubbing out a cigarette

New research determines medical cannabis use can help people quit smoking.

As many current and former tobacco users can attest kicking the habit is easier said than done.

However, a recent study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment has identified an unintended benefit of medical cannabis use for some who also use tobacco — they’re reaching for nicotine less often.

A research team led by Dr. Philippe Lucas, CEO of I2E Research, alongside Dr. Zach Walsh, a psychology professor in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, analyzed self-report survey data from 2,100 medical cannabis users, with 650 identified as current or former tobacco consumers.

According to Drs. Lucas and Walsh, the results were impressive.

“We found that 49 per cent of current and former tobacco users report their tobacco consumption has decreased since they started using cannabis therapeutically,” says Dr. Lucas. “Additionally, 24 per cent reported zero tobacco use in the 30 days preceding the survey — these are significant reductions in the context of smoking cessation.”

Though the use of cannabis instead of more dangerous substances, like opioids, is actively being studied, Dr. Walsh says this paper is one of the first focusing on cannabis as a tobacco substitution.

“It’s all about looking at these things through a public health lens, and similar to opioids, tobacco is much more dangerous than cannabis, at least from a lung health perspective,” he says. “We’ve been so focused on understanding the risks of cannabis legalization that we sometimes forget to look at the benefits, too. We know legalization makes cannabis use more mainstream but we don’t know how that might impact how people are using it. If they’re stacking it on top of other drugs, there may not be a health benefit, but if they’re using it in lieu of more harmful substances, you start to understand why legalization makes sense from a harm-reduction perspective.”

While the study results have proved promising, Dr. Walsh points out that the idea of using cannabis as a smoking cessation tool is very much in its infancy.

“There’s a lot more research to be done here, but if further studies confirm what we’ve found, I think cannabis could work for some as a transitionary smoking cessation tool in the future.”

Dr. Walsh acknowledges that while the concept may seem far-fetched to some, he’s hoping these study results serve as a jumping-off point to start conversations and increase research in the area.

“I think we need to work on reconceptualizing the role cannabis can play in our lives,” says Dr. Walsh.  “Quitting tobacco is hard, and the consequences of not quitting are dire so I think the more options we can provide for folks, the better.”

a picture of a Golden Retriever

Golden Retriever Doogle (above), and his people Geri and John Eakins, are one of many volunteer handler-dog teams in UBCO’s Building Academic Retention Through K-9s program. New research confirms that canine cuddles can significantly enhance student wellbeing. Photo by Adam Lauzé.

If you find watching funny dog videos puts a smile on your face, try indulging in canine cuddles.

New research from UBC Okanagan confirms physical contact with a therapy dog can significantly enhance student wellbeing.

The research was led by Dr. John-Tyler Binfet, associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Building Academic Retention Through K-9s (BARK) program. Co-authors include BARK coordinator Freya Green and Zakary Draper, a doctoral student in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences psychology department. Together, the team assessed the impact of client-canine contact on wellbeing outcomes in 284 undergraduate students.

“There have been a number of studies that have found canine-assisted interventions significantly improve participants’ wellbeing, but there has been little research into what interactions provide the greatest benefits,” says Dr. Binfet. “We know that spending time with therapy dogs is beneficial but we didn’t know why.”

Students volunteered to participate and were randomly assigned to one of three treatment conditions — touch or no touch canine interaction, or to spend time with a dog handler but with no therapy dog present.

Prior to the sessions, participants provided self-reports of wellbeing; specifically measuring their self-perceptions of flourishing, positive and negative affect, social connectedness, happiness, integration into the campus community, stress, homesickness and loneliness.

Participants across all conditions experienced increased wellbeing on several of the measures, with more benefit when a dog was present, with the most benefit coming from physical contact with the dog. Notably, the touch contact with a therapy dog group was the only one that saw a significant enhancement across all measures.

“As students potentially return to in-person class on their college campuses this fall and seek ways to keep their stress in check, I’d encourage them to take advantage of the therapy dog visitation program offered. And once there — be sure to make time for a canine cuddle,” says Dr. Binfet. “That’s a surefire way to reduce stress.”

With many students feeling anxious about the return to in-person learning, the results stand to influence post-secondary mental health and wellness programs along with the organization and delivery of canine-assisted intervention programs.

“When therapy dogs are brought to campus, program organizers must be mindful of the dog-to-student ratio. Our research tells us that interacting through touch is key to reducing student stress so program administrators must be mindful to offer programs that make this possible,” says Dr. Binfet.

The study was published in Anthrozoös, an international journal showcasing multidisciplinary research on interactions and relationships with animals.

A group of residents watching the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire rages out of control

Residents watch at 2 a.m. as the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park rages out of control. Photo by Fern Helfand.

Dr. Mary Ann Murphy has peered into the lives of families who have lost everything in a wildfire. She knows what haunts them, and what they would do differently if they had to evacuate again. She also knows how they took those first steps to recovery.

Dr. Murphy is an associate professor in the Faculty of Health and Social Development’s School of Social Work, and also teaches in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ history and sociology department. Dr. Murphy has been examining the psychological and sociological impacts of wildfires on those who have lost their homes.

As the province grapples with the latest aggressive wildfire season and with the tragic loss of life and property for the people of Lytton, she searches for lessons from those who have survived wildfires in the past.

What kind of past experience from wildfires can we draw upon to learn about those coping with loss today?

Seventeen years ago, I led a UBC interdisciplinary study (Social Work, Photography, Nursing, Earth, Environmental and Geographic Science) with families who had lost their homes in the unprecedented Okanagan Mountain wildfire in 2003. That research led to a year-long exhibit at the Kelowna Museum and an article printed in the Hazmat journal in 2018.

This was one of the largest wildland-urban interface fires in Canadian history. This fire forever changed our landscape and our psyche, and deeply affected our communal sense of safety and security. We were interested in talking with families one year after the fire to find out how they were doing and to learn more about the depth and significance of the loss of cherished objects and their homes, as well as their experiences with evacuation and adjustment.

Why is it essential to understand these experiences?

While our museum exhibition has long been packed away, we vividly remember the families, stories and the trauma of those who — if they even had the opportunity — rushed to gather up belongings and protect their children and pets.

We still often think of these families, and have worked to impart their lessons to others, including a sense of what was really important. For us, the “new normal” refers to their fortitude in grappling with adjustment and recovery — lessons of particular significance as the frequency and severity of fires only increases. We hope everyone will take time to empathize with the trauma they experienced, as well as what the Lytton and other evacuees are currently going through — which is nothing short of a monumental disruption to their lives.

You talked about the sense of guilt. People desperately grabbed items as they were forced to evacuate their homes, but were saddened by what they had left behind.

There were important items that family members had forgotten as the ‘acute stress’ of the moment trumped logical thinking. Later, they berated themselves for not taking computers, hard drives, the oldest objects in their homes, photographs, Christmas decorations, favourite clothing out of the laundry bin, collections and souvenirs, art work and important papers.

We also recall the profound guilt felt by those who left behind simple but irreplaceable mementos that represented deeply embedded memories — children’s trophies and stuffed animals, family heirlooms and old, inexpensive keepsakes that most represented what they cherished about their home and history.

Those items were forgotten in haste, while items like tennis racquets and food were saved.

Any tips on what people should do to be prepared. And the items they simply shouldn’t leave behind?

The families we spoke with mourned irreplaceable photos and the Christmas decorations no one thinks about in the heat. Their advice was to prepare for fire season by making a list; taking a full video of every room in your house and pre-packing easy-to-grab bins with important objects and documents like passports and insurance papers, including the most treasured things in your home. Think about whether things like jewelry or art work are insured, and whether or not these are things you would want to take with you. Also, think about neighbours who may need assistance. Remember that you may have only a few minutes to leave.

Can you explain why the grief for wildfire victims is so profound?

The victims we spoke with talked about living with the incredible loss of what was more than a structure — as every comfort, every family routine and ritual, everything familiar was turned upside down. They struggled with the loss of something that many people work, sacrifice, tend to and care about — not a house, but a home — a place that reflects yourself, a welcoming safe harbour, a site of shared history, comfort, celebrations and traditions.

But, as we have seen over the past few days, hope and help will come from the most unexpected places. While Lytton homes and the townsite have been burned, we are reminded of the reassuring words of those who left messages for the families we talked with. “The most wonderful thing was hearing how your community came together. It can be both your darkest and finest hour.”

Residents watch at 2 a.m. as the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park rages out of control. Photo by Fern Helfand.

The sense of communal safety and security can be lost in mere minutes

Dr. Mary Ann Murphy has peered into the lives of families who have lost everything in a wildfire. She knows what haunts them, and what they would do differently if they had to evacuate again. She also knows how they took those first steps to recovery.

Dr. Murphy is an associate professor in the Faculty of Health and Social Development’s School of Social Work, and also teaches in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ history and sociology department. Dr. Murphy has been examining the psychological and sociological impacts of wildfires on those who have lost their homes.

As the province grapples with the latest aggressive wildfire season and with the tragic loss of life and property for the people of Lytton, she searches for lessons from those who have survived wildfires in the past.

What kind of past experience from wildfires can we draw upon to learn about those coping with loss today?

Seventeen years ago, I led a UBC interdisciplinary study (Social Work, Photography, Nursing, Earth, Environmental and Geographic Science) with families who had lost their homes in the unprecedented Okanagan Mountain wildfire in 2003. That research led to a year-long exhibit at the Kelowna Museum and an article printed in the Hazmat journal in 2018.

This was one of the largest wildland-urban interface fires in Canadian history. This fire forever changed our landscape and our psyche, and deeply affected our communal sense of safety and security. We were interested in talking with families one year after the fire to find out how they were doing and to learn more about the depth and significance of the loss of cherished objects and their homes, as well as their experiences with evacuation and adjustment.

Why is it essential to understand these experiences?

While our museum exhibition has long been packed away, we vividly remember the families, stories and the trauma of those who — if they even had the opportunity — rushed to gather up belongings and protect their children and pets.

We still often think of these families, and have worked to impart their lessons to others, including a sense of what was really important. For us, the “new normal” refers to their fortitude in grappling with adjustment and recovery — lessons of particular significance as the frequency and severity of fires only increases. We hope everyone will take time to empathize with the trauma they experienced, as well as what the Lytton and other evacuees are currently going through — which is nothing short of a monumental disruption to their lives.

You talked about the sense of guilt. People desperately grabbed items as they were forced to evacuate their homes, but were saddened by what they had left behind.

There were important items that family members had forgotten as the ‘acute stress’ of the moment trumped logical thinking. Later, they berated themselves for not taking computers, hard drives, the oldest objects in their homes, photographs, Christmas decorations, favourite clothing out of the laundry bin, collections and souvenirs, art work and important papers.

We also recall the profound guilt felt by those who left behind simple but irreplaceable mementos that represented deeply embedded memories — children’s trophies and stuffed animals, family heirlooms and old, inexpensive keepsakes that most represented what they cherished about their home and history.

Those items were forgotten in haste, while items like tennis racquets and food were saved.

Any tips on what people should do to be prepared. And the items they simply shouldn’t leave behind?

The families we spoke with mourned irreplaceable photos and the Christmas decorations no one thinks about in the heat. Their advice was to prepare for fire season by making a list; taking a full video of every room in your house and pre-packing easy-to-grab bins with important objects and documents like passports and insurance papers, including the most treasured things in your home. Think about whether things like jewelry or art work are insured, and whether or not these are things you would want to take with you. Also, think about neighbours who may need assistance. Remember that you may have only a few minutes to leave.

Can you explain why the grief for wildfire victims is so profound?

The victims we spoke with talked about living with the incredible loss of what was more than a structure — as every comfort, every family routine and ritual, everything familiar was turned upside down. They struggled with the loss of something that many people work, sacrifice, tend to and care about — not a house, but a home — a place that reflects yourself, a welcoming safe harbour, a site of shared history, comfort, celebrations and traditions.

But, as we have seen over the past few days, hope and help will come from the most unexpected places. While Lytton homes and the townsite have been burned, we are reminded of the reassuring words of those who left messages for the families we talked with. “The most wonderful thing was hearing how your community came together. It can be both your darkest and finest hour.”