Next week’s Business Journal Health Care Conference marks the event’s 19th year in a timely way. The focus is on the area’s mental health needs as the community approaches the one-year anniversary of October’s devastating wildfires, as well as resiliency going forward.
With $9.7 billion in Northern California losses alone, dealing with the astronomical costs resulting from the fires is one thing. Dealing with the emotional cost is another.
“Addressing mental health is so important, and many businesses and employers have not yet fully understood the ramifications of employees’ struggles,” said Debbie Mason, CEO of the Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma County. “We must help our workforce get help. If people are struggling, they cannot do their best in life or work.”
That’s where the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative comes in, a Foundation-led initiative comprised of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder experts from the Department of Veterans Affairs, mental health associations, nonprofit organizations and more.
“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,” Mason said.
The collaborative currently trains mental health professionals, including skills for psychological recovery, and provides free services and resources for fire survivors. These include individual counseling, self-guided resilience training, yoga and meditation classes, and a bilingual website called mysonomastrong.com, where people struggling with anxiety take a self-assessment test and get connected to resources for further help.
Triggers for problems among survivors can run the gamut, such as rebuilding a home, something Mason said most people who aren’t experiencing trauma generally choose not to do because of the inherent pressures.
“Yet, post-disaster, people are expected to learn zoning and permitting rules, argue with insurers, figure out how to fill financing gaps,” she said, “and then deal with architects, builders, landscape architects, engineers and more — at a time when their emotional and cognitive abilities are less than optimal.”
Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center, which was shuttered for two weeks because of the fires, also has been increasing its resources to help patients.
“We’re seeing an increase in PTSD and diagnoses related to the fire,” said Dr. Tricia Hiserote, program director, Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Family Medicine Residency. “We’ve had additional educational events for our caregivers to help (them) recognize the various stages of grieving that are prevalent after a natural disaster.”
To keep the momentum going, Kaiser has submitted a grant seeking funding that will allow it to further evaluate how the fires affected chronic disease conditions, including mental health, she said.
Naomi Fuchs, CEO of Santa Rosa Community Health, is gearing up for the soon-to-launch Sonoma Community Resilience Collaborative, a multiyear program designed to give people the necessary tools and resources for self-healing after going through a trauma.
“Our goal is to train 300 people over the next three years to become community facilitators of mind-body tools that help people with a sense of hopefulness, their own capacity to recover, and connection to the community,” she said.
Fuchs said her vision for the Sonoma Community Resilience Collaborative is to minimize the risks area residents are facing post-fires in terms of loss, whether it’s a home, job, or sense of community.
“There’s a lot of data that shows an increase not only in depression and anxiety or other things you might expect, but also in chronic disease, domestic violence or substance-abuse disorder,” she said. “We want to do as much as we can to prevent that from happening. We don’t want to have a secondary disaster.”