Rabbi Niles Goldstein of Congregation Beth Shalom was a first-responder chaplain in New York City after 9/11. The stresses he’s seen in Napa over the past two weeks from rampaging wildfires echo those he saw back then.
“You’re seeing people walking around in face masks ... seeing people who are trying to rebuild their lives,” he said. Instead of a one-time event, though, the fires have lingered, he said.
“Here, I feel much more anxiety as we try to find some sort of new normal in light of what just happened,” Goldstein said.
“You can’t stay still, you can’t go back,” he said. In times like this, he said, it’s important for the community to stick together and help one another.
“There are a lot of people out there who want to offer support,” he said. “Be humble enough to accept that.”
Recognizing the anxieties facing people who have been evacuated or have lost their homes, Napa County Health and Human Services Agency has been providing mental health services to evacuees in shelters and now the Local Assistance Center (LAC) at the county’s South Napa Campus.
“Offering this right away when people need it is important,” said Bill Carter, mental health director at Napa County Health and Human Services Agency.
Out of 1,600 contacts made at evacuation centers, about 35 percent of people reported being “OK,” Carter said. Another 24 percent reported that their homes were not livable – a high risk factor when it comes to mental health. Fewer than 10 percent reported experiencing extreme panic or fear and 6.6 percent of respondents said they had prior disaster experience.
Carter said that these preliminary numbers helps to give a sense of the wildfire impacts. Although only a few people have sought mental health services so far this week at the LAC, Carter says that it could pick up.
In the first days after the 2014 earthquake, he said, mental health staff experienced a similar delay in demand. On Thursday, the number of people coming in for help had gone from none or one each shift to about eight, he said.
Mental health services will also be available at schools and at Napa Valley College when they open on Monday, Carter said. That’s where he expects to see more children as well as teachers opening up about their experience.
Anyone impacted by the fire can get immediate on-the-spot help by calling the county mental health access line, Carter said.
“I think that in a situation like this, by and large, people are resilient and they’re going to get through this on their own,” Carter said. Others, he said, will benefit from brief counseling. Some may struggle with this for longer periods of time and would benefit from long-term help.
“I think what happens is there is a continuum of risk and resilience,” said Merritt Schreiber, Ph.D. professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. “It’s not one thing that happens to people, its kind of a range of things.”
That range, he said, is determined in part by how the person or the family was doing before – were they stable or were they already struggling? Do they have a history of psychological disorders? Have they experienced other disasters? Have they been impacted by fire before?
What actually happened to the individual matters, too, he said. Someone evacuated just in the nick of time and then lost their home will have a different experience than someone who was evacuated with time to spare, he said. Experiencing a fire-related injury, losing a loved one or pet, or seeing the destruction of property can also affect someone’s recovery.
The faster a person or family is able to reestablish their lives and return to normalcy, the better it will be for them, he said.
High levels of stress are expected in times of disaster, Schreiber said. “When that level of stress remains at the same level for days and weeks, that’s when it may be time to get a secondary assessment.” Don’t wait too long to get help, he advises.
Other community agencies are also helping with mental health services – places like Puertas Abiertas Community Resource Center. Programs Director Blanca Huijon said that since the organization already has the trust of the Latino community, many people affected have come to them for help.
“We have seen clients who need counseling,” Huijon said. “They feel anxiety because of the situation they’ve gone through in the last two weeks – they’re even asking to talk to a therapist.”
Puertas Abiertas has partnered with Mentis to bring mental health services to their center at 952 Napa St. from 2-4:30 p.m. Mondays and Fridays.
Talking to children
Your child may be feeling differently than you, according to a report released this week by Kristie Brandt and Dr. Bruce Perry of the Parent-Infant & Child Institute at UC Davis. Moreover, not every child is going to experience trauma the same, they said.
“The most important thing you can do right now is to help your child feel safe and protected,” they said. One of the best ways to do this is to be present and try to have as much of a routine as possible. Do some age-appropriate activities together, like coloring or working on a puzzle.
Don’t force your child to talk about what happened – let them “take the lead” and talk about it on their own terms.
Parents and caregivers should look out for behavioral changes in their children – eating too much or too little, being more or less active, changes in sleep habits, the addition of new fears like being afraid of the dark and changes in bathroom behavior, like wetting the bed or having diarrhea. Children may not display any behavioral changes, Brandt and Perry said, while others may become tearful, aggressive, or develop perceived attachment issues.
These symptoms may be indications that the child is feeling distressed about the unpredictable nature of the event, may be recovering from the enormity of the event, or may be afraid that the event is going to happen again.
“Being more available to your child for the next few weeks, especially at bedtime, will help promote a sense of safety and protection, and will give you a chance to watch for what your child’s behavior can tell you,” they said. For younger children and infants who may pick up on your feelings regarding the events, it may be helpful to tell them that you are upset, but they haven’t done anything wrong.