Mental health cuts during Sonoma County fire rebuild, people alarmed

Mental health cuts in Sonoma County have people alarmed as the community deals with the emotional fallout of devastating fires. 

Behavioral Health is facing a $7 million shortfall, brought on by reductions in state and federal funding. 
A few dozen layoffs, and the dismantling of some counseling programs, has been proposed. 

"If we had people running into the ER right now with heart palpitations, we wouldn't say let's cut the cardiologists," county Supervisor Shirlee Zane told a crowd gathered Thursday evening at a Mental Health Resiliency Forum.

Zane promised to do what she can to stave off cuts at a time where fire survivors are seeking services.

"We are having some fire dreams, nightmares, and we have a daughter, she's five, and she doesn't feel safe," said Erin Reilly, Coffey Park survivor. 

Reilly was among the first attendees to arrive and grab a seat in the Santa Rosa auditorium as it filled. 

"All of our friends have lost their homes too, so we're just struggling, trying to find some help," she said. 

In the first weeks after the Oct. 8 firestorm, people were dealing with shock and grief, which seemed to be followed by survival mode and a search for stability.

For most, the months have been busy and stressful, and they may not have taken the time for self-care and counseling. The forum gathered mental health resources in one place, with tables and representatives to answer questions. 

"I think we have sad moments, and I think we have triumphs, and we support each other," support group facilitator said Katie Swan, support group facilitator.  

Swan co-leads a fire support group at Buckelew Center, which is still in demand. 

"People are dealing with moving on with life, trying to rebuild your home, and support your friends, ‘how do you process all that?’” Swan said. "I think it's still going to be increasing as time goes on."  

Many fire survivors describe feeling "stuck" because their progress has stalled.

Architects and builders are so busy, projects have backed up, and households must wait to rebuild.  
If insurance is more hindrance than help, that adds to the sense of limbo.   

"Not only was the fire traumatic and hard on us as individuals and families, but the recovery is difficult for us as well," said U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, addressing the crowd. 

The evening offered perspective on trauma from an expert from UCLA.

"What I know from being a former therapist and having my own trauma and grief in my life, is sometimes it doesn't start to set-in until the third or fourth month," said Supervisor Zane. 

That certainly seems plausible to survivors like Erin Reilly.

"Yesterday my daughter's school had an impromptu fire drill and I happened to be there," Reilly said. “It triggered something and I was crying."  

The family is staying with relatives as they await rebuilding. 

Reilly's daughter, who is just 5-years-old, believes their house is going to burn down, too. And even Erin Reilly admits to some apprehension about going back to their home once it is rebuilt. 

"There are days I don't want to go back there. And days that it's my home," Reilly said. "I'll go sit on my property and look and reminisce about the years we were there. So it's a struggle, every single day is a struggle."