Smoke from wildfires is a growing public health risk due to the enormous amount of smoke-related pollution that is produced and can travel thousands of kilometers from its source. While many studies have documented the physical health harms of wildfire smoke, less is known about the effects on mental health and well-being. Understanding the effects of wildfire smoke on mental health and well-being is crucial as the world enters a time in which wildfire smoke events become more frequent and severe. We conducted a scoping review of the existing information on wildfire smoke’s impact on mental health and well-being and developed a model for understanding the pathways in which wildfire smoke may contribute to mental health distress.
We conducted searches using PubMed, Medline, Embase, Google, Scopus, and ProQuest for 1990–2022. These searches yielded 200 articles. Sixteen publications met inclusion criteria following screening and eligibility assessment. Three more publications from the bibliographies of these articles were included for a total of 19 publications.
Our review suggests that exposure to wildfire smoke may have mental health impacts, particularly in episodes of chronic and persistent smoke events, but the evidence is inconsistent and limited. Qualitative studies disclose a wider range of impacts across multiple mental health and well-being domains. The potential pathways connecting wildfire smoke with mental health and well-being operate at multiple interacting levels including individual, social and community networks, living and working conditions, and ecological levels.
Priorities for future research include: 1) applying more rigorous methods; 2) differentiating between mental illness and emotional well-being; 3) studying chronic, persistent or repeated smoke events; 4) identifying the contextual factors that set the stage for mental health and well-being effects, and 5) identifying the causal processes that link wildfire smoke to mental health and well-being effects. The pathways model can serve as a basis for further research and knowledge synthesis on this topic. Also, it helps public health, community mental health, and emergency management practitioners mitigate the mental health and well-being harms of wildfire smoke.