Addressing the trauma

Photo by David Ross

Naomi Yarom, IsraAID psychosocial support therapist, teaches staff members at Boys & Girls Clubs of the North Valley how to use therapeutic art card storytelling.

Dr. Scott Nichols is caring for twice as many patients as usual at Enloe Behavioral Health.

He knows it’s because of the trauma so many members of the community—on the Ridge and in the valley—endured during and following the Camp Fire.

“One of my goals is to help people think about what they can do to improve their own situation,” he told the CN&R from a conference room at his office, his therapy dog, Winston, resting at his feet.

This often takes the form of an exercise in which he asks patients to practice giving their situation a letter grade. If it’s a D, “don’t hold out for an A,” he said; rather, consider how to get it to a D+.

“What can you do to incrementally improve your situation?” he’ll ask. It can be a small thing, like making one phone call or going for a walk.

This prescription isn’t just for Camp Fire survivors, but anybody feeling emotional distress or fatigue from the disaster. It’s important for the community to “acknowledge the hardship for all of us,” that “there are losses” everyone is grappling with.

“This should be a time of really exquisite self care.”

To help community members learn some tools to make that happen, local health professionals are ramping up their efforts. At Enloe, staff have undergone crisis and resiliency training. Meanwhile, the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health is pursuing a grant to deploy crisis counselors for the next nine months. Additionally, multiple humanitarian organizations have dedicated their resources to the region.

While all are offering different aid, they share a common goal: providing emotional support and fostering resiliency, as well as reassuring community members that they are not alone in the recovery process.

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), survivors of traumatic events most commonly experience anxiety, sadness and trouble sleeping, as well as upset stomachs and headaches, overeating or loss of appetite. These symptoms, including intense grief, can linger, especially for those who lost loved ones.

If people are feeling stuck in a place of helplessness and unable to function in their relationships, work or daily life, that’s when they should seek help, Nichols said.

Israel-based humanitarian organization IsraAID has found arts and drama therapy to be effective in helping communities heal following disasters.

IsraAID has worked closely with Boys & Girls Clubs of the North Valley staff, Paradise police officers and Congregation Beth Israel caregivers—offering training and support circle sessions, which it plans to continue.

David Ross, who is leading IsraAID’s efforts in Chico, said a key goal of their volunteer work is to provide local leaders with enduring, meaningful tools they can use to help their community as it recovers.

At the Boys & Girls Club, IsraAID psychosocial support therapists led staff and children through games that fostered trust and support, Ross said, and taught lessons about boundaries. During one such activity, children wrote or acted out an epic story, following a hero who faces a daunting obstacle and, after discovering a supportive friend or community, triumphs at the end.

In this way, the arts “can be a vehicle for communication and expression and gaining insight and awareness,” Ross said, “encouraging imagination and creativity while they’re processing their feelings.”

The Art of Living Foundation has a different approach. According to Deepak Gilra, foundation director for Sacramento, their philosophy is to help participants grapple with a tough task: “How do we help the mind relieve the trauma of the past or the anxiety of the future?”

That’s where mind-body resilience training comes into play. The foundation is known for providing programs that include breathing techniques, meditation and yoga, with the goal of reducing stress and fostering inner peace, happiness and well-being. They are planning open sessions for community members as well as private sessions for organizations.

As outside relief organizations inevitably leave, Behavioral Health plans to have additional mental health crisis counselors on hand through the summer.

Behavioral Health Director Dorian Kittrell said the department already has grant-funded counselors from the 2017 Wall Fire, who were able to be deployed at emergency shelters for the Camp Fire. The department has applied for additional federal funds, which, if received, Kittrell said, could bring in more than 20 mental health counselors.

The counselors would focus on providing emotional support, stress-reduction techniques and coping strategies, according to Don Taylor, Behavioral Health assistant director of Clinical Services. They’ll do so through community forums, school visits and phone calls to survivors, promoting “resilience, empowerment and recovery.”

Holli Drobny, Behavioral Health community services program manager, said the department received trauma training before the disaster and is undergoing American Red Cross psychological first-aid training. During one session, Drobny and her colleagues learned how to recognize signs of stress in themselves and their clients, and how to provide immediate support.

One of her key takeaways: spending just 10 minutes to 15 minutes a day connecting with someone about thoughts and feelings can be incredibly helpful. This tip also is suggested by SAMHSA, which recommends engaging in physical activity, focusing on healthy eating, re-establishing routines, celebrating successes and returning to enjoyable activities.

Nichols has an optimistic view of recovery. In general, the more people start to regain control over their lives, housing and employment, and re-establish a sense of community, they will begin to feel safer and more secure. Nichols said this puts them at less of a risk of developing long-term mental health effects.

“It’s not inevitable people will have long-term trauma.”