When I think about how the 2017 fires have changed me several things come to mind.
I am kinder. I understand folks are more highly stressed and I give them even more compassion.
I do a better job of managing my own self care for nutrition, sleep, hydration, etc.
My work seems never ending to help people heal. Yet, this quote by Robert Ingersoll, “We rise by lifting others “ keeps me going even when I am weary from overwork, because the needs of others are so great.
In a sense, I have been navigating my own healing through helping my Sonoma County neighbors. Living my values of servant leadership has helped me heal.
Within the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative, I’ve been working with an incredibly generous and knowledgeable team of local and national disaster mental health experts in the to create an infrastructure of bilingual mental health care for everyone.
During the past year, I have been honored to hear personal, moving, gripping, terrifying and sad stories from several dozen fire survivors. These stories, often vivid and emotional enough to trigger my own PTSD, remind me daily that healing begins one person at a time. Everyone’s experience is different and people need to be heard.
In listening to people’s stories, I continue to hear loudly and clearly that so many people in our community are acutely hurting. Still.
They hurt financially in a way that we will never be able to make whole. They hurt emotionally for the loss of treasured photos and mementos that we can’t give back to them.
They long for their homes, as they existed pre-fire, for the sense of comfort and normality home gave to them. As a community, collectively we grieve because we can never return them to that state of pre-fire norm.
I’ve lived through disaster recovery caused by hurricanes for decades before moving here, and I understand that real recovery at a community level is a ten-year process to get back to a community that looks like it did pre-disaster.
Yet, appearances of progress will be deceiving if we fail to address the mental of health of the people that live here.
So many of us still struggle. Silently. Afraid to ask for help for risk of being stigmatized.
Many of us need help to find a new normal in our own lives. Recovery is at an individual level and it is a personal journey that varies for each of us. Everyone needs to know its ok to ask for help and it is normal to need it after a disaster like this.
In the early months of recovery, business leaders were focused on giving people support for housing and tangible goods. Things they could touch and feel gave a measure of comfort to the giver as well as the receiver. Taking care of immediate needs was really important and many donors gave generously to that.
Now, I experience that business owners and leaders are seeing the effects of wildfire trauma on the mental health of their own employees and customers.
So, now, they understand that we must reduce the stigma of asking for help and financially support a system that works for those who that don’t have insurance, as well as for those who can’t afford their deductibles and out of pocket costs.
Debbie Mason is CEO of Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma County and CEO of Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative.
This is part of a report Oct. 8 on the one-year anniversary of the October 2017 wildfires that forced tens of thousands to flee quickly and destroyed thousands of homes. Read more personal accounts from business and civic leaders as well as updates on the economic recovery.