Collaborative addresses the unique mental health needs of fire survivors

As the horrendous Carr and Ferguson fires continue to rage, an initiative in Sonoma County is looking to address the mental health needs of survivors with the newly founded Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative (WMHC).  The group is treating fire trauma on a number of fronts and could serve as a model for other hard hit counties in addressing the often overlooked social costs of the increasingly common natural disasters.

Fire disaster survivors have a unique set of mental health effects that can prove difficult to address long-term. Unanticipated triggers, like wind or sirens, may cause deep anxiety, difficulty sleeping, or panic attacks in adults, while children may have separation anxiety, throw tantrums, wet the bed, or complain of headaches or stomachaches. The strain and guilt may cause confusion, lack of focus, depression, or lead alcoholics or drug addicts to begin using again. And not every survivor experiences these potential reactions immediately. They may take weeks or months to manifest.

To address these unique needs, the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative was developed by community groups with funding from the nonprofit Healthcare Foundation of Northern Sonoma County. It brings together Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder experts from the Department of Veterans Affairs, mental health associations, and nonprofit organizations to target its assistance efforts to address trauma-informed mental health services on several fronts. Collaborative initiatives include:

  • Sponsoring free and low cost trainings for mental health professionals that focus on the unique needs and issues of fire survivors;
  • Sending therapists to neighborhood meetings, school events, and other community gatherings;
  • Offering drop-in group therapy sessions with specially trained mental health providers;
  • Holding free trauma-informed yoga and meditation classes; and
  • Providing self-help resources, self tests, and connections to additional resources in English and Spanish through the website

Involved community partners include county mental health staff, the Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Redwood Psychological Association, Alliance Medical Center, St. Joseph Health and the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In its first year the Collaborative has raised over $800,000.00, but it is focused on more. Debbie Mason, CEO of the Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma County told the Northbay Business Journal,

“We are committed to raising $1.1 million this year, and more than $600,000 next year to fund the mental health needs of our community post-wildfires.”

In addition to direct and indirect service to survivors, WMHC also is looking to collaborate for the long-term benefit of the wider group of fire event survivors by conducting a study on the long-term mental health effects of fires. The National Center for PTSD, part of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, is in charge of the study and has stated that it will likely publish its findings making them free to the public.

As fires in the West become more frequent and more intense, mental health in affected communities will continue to grow as an overall health concern. The Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative is a innovative model from which newly affected communities may draw ideas and support in addressing current and future fire-related trauma.