Fire milestone raises mental health issues
Anxiety is the order of the day as wildfires again ravage tinder dry Northern California, bringing back smoky skies and high fire hazard days signaled by the red flag flying in gusty winds over the Kenwood firehouse. As the Oct. 8 anniversary of last year’s firestorm approaches, the entire community reflects on the immense impacts of that disaster. There are consequences to those thoughts.
Anxiety and personal problems increase at the anniversary of disasters. It’s a well-known and long-studied phenomenon.
Californians “have experienced PTSD as a result of the monstrous fires that ravaged the state,” Kenwood resident Dr. John Podboy said. “The concept of trauma dates back at least 5,000 years,” he added. A forensic psychologist and expert on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Podboy is a combat veteran who helped define the modern PTSD diagnosis, as well as an avid student of the phenomenon of battlefield trauma.
“It is understandable that this is a concern we have, especially at this first anniversary of those fires,” he said.
Consciously or not, almost everyone who was here is affected to some degree by those deadly wildfires that wiped out 407 homes and another 487 buildings in the Sonoma Valley alone, and killed 24 people countywide. It’s hard to find someone who wasn’t impacted by the fire or doesn’t know someone who was. The social and financial impacts on every aspect of life in Sonoma County will take years to manifest, much less address, in spite of billions of dollars in aid that has generously flowed into the area.
Glen Ellen resident and psychotherapist Jim Shere deals with many people who find comfort and serenity in his office on the banks of Sonoma Creek at Jack London Village. “It’s a year now. The shock of the event was incredible; it put people into a life or death situation. I’ve heard many stories of people who escaped with their lives and little else.”
When the exhilaration of surviving started to wane, “the reality of the damage slowly started to sink in,” Shere said. “That blasted landscape erodes the potential for quick recovery. Various disappointments with agencies and insurance companies are secondary damage, making things more difficult.”
The difficulties people encounter are as varied as the people themselves.
Dawn McIntyre is a Dunbar Kindergarten teacher who works with the Parent Teacher Organization.
“Some of us feel, as the anniversary date approaches, that we do not want to go to the Glen Ellen Village Fair or large group events that are just too much of a reminder,” she said.
There are many other triggers that promote anxiety and uneasiness, McIntyre said after polling the group.
“Emotional triggers include changes in weather and temperature, the smell of the approaching Fall in the morning, wind that seems to come out of nowhere and is fairly strong, BBQ smells or other smoke smells, seeing people who will be at the fair who we know have lost everything. Such a level of empathy that it is overwhelming rather than being able to support other people.”
Wendy Wheelwright at Sonoma County Behavioral Health is the project manager for CAHope, a consortium of support groups convened with disaster aid funding.
“People have different experiences,” Wheelwright said. “Longterm signs (of distress) to watch out for include a lot of sadness and grief, anxiety, feelings of guilt, feeling numb, that something is wrong.”
And the impact of these traumas can be physical as well as psychological.
“The body remembers,” Wheelwright noted. “Not necessarily thinking about the anniversary. You have more headaches, stomachaches, a hard time sleeping – it can affect thinking. You may have a harder time concentrating, remembering things, making decisions. It’s like trying to think through a fog. It is like an undercurrent, keeping you on guard, waiting, more of an alertness, but not directly afraid. A lot of people experience that.”
Fire survivors need to learn skills to cope with these symptoms and it helps to talk to people, to bounce it off someone else, Wheelwright said. “Sweat the small stuff, so it doesn’t turn into big stuff.”
Deciding that you even have symptoms of distress, much less finding ways to learn to deal with them, is the first and sometimes hardest part of the coping process.
“No matter how many sources of help there are, they are useless if the people who need them either don’t know or don’t reach out,” Glen Ellen resident and psychologist Dr. Katherine Hargitt said. “There is a lot of stigma around reaching out for mental health. There is a U.S. culture of figuring things out on your own. There is a message of failure if we can’t figure out problems on our own. We are a shame-driven culture and mental health is steeped with shame. People don’t share their vulnerability.”
The first step is to talk to someone you can trust, family, friend, community leader. “It’s difficult to say, ‘I’m not doing so well,’ when we have a lot of pride,” she noted. “We store things away that build up until something else happens, worse reactions or even sickness.”
There are many ways to deal with stress that don’t involve seeking professional guidance. As individuals, we can look for specific ways to find calm, peaceful, non-threatening environments. Take a walk in a park, meditate, turn off the TV, talk to people about your feelings and listen to them as well.
Practicing kindness helps both you and those you are kind to, Shere said.
“Assume everybody in the community is suffering,” he said. “We need to be kind to each other. Kindness is the most important thing to offer.”
Go easy on yourself, too.
“We have to be kind to ourselves about these symptoms” Shere added. “It’s OK to get scared about these symptoms, to feel that there is something wrong with us – we really have been traumatized. A lot of people look at symptoms and think they are bad. It is just the opposite; they tell us when we need to recognize what we are going through and need to be kind to ourselves.”
Shere likened the trauma process to a form of digestion, where we break down the impacts, learn what nourishes us, and pass through the rest.
“There’s nothing wrong with going through trauma,” he said. “I like to have people think of [talking with a mental health professional] as a safe place, a place to take care of ourselves.”
There are many sources of information on how to deal with trauma, both on your own or by reaching out for help, including trained trauma professionals, support groups, and online sources to learn about taking care of yourself after a trauma.
The Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative provides a number of coping strategies, and lists a number of nonprofit sources of help, both free and fee-based. Call 866-960-6264 or go to MySonomaStrong.com to get started. Many insurance companies offer help with counseling, and there are even trained counselors who will come to your workplace or home for private or group discussions.
Editor's note: This article was corrected on Oct. 1, 2018 to correctly identify Jim Shere as a "psychotherapist."