Sonoma County supervisors raised concerns Tuesday about the damaging effects of the October firestorm on residents’ mental health, particularly the impacts on the thousands of people whose homes burned.
In a wide-ranging conversation about the region’s recovery from last month’s natural disaster, supervisors conveyed a desire to marshal public resources to help fire victims manage their collective trauma.
Warning of the possible long-term mental health consequences that fire victims could experience, the Board of Supervisors urged staff to conduct strong public messaging about the county’s mental health resources and asked to hear a more detailed presentation from a medical professional next month.
Tuesday’s board discussion was prompted in part by the death of Greg Peter Mlynarczyk, a well-known dentist whose rural Santa Rosa home was destroyed in the fires. His body was found Saturday morning at the ruins of his Amber Lane home, where he had shot himself, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.
Referencing Mlynarczyk’s death, Supervisor Shirlee Zane said county officials need to pay close attention to their mental health efforts in the aftermath of the fires.
“Now more than ever, we can rise to a whole different level in terms of destigmatizing it (mental health crises) and really taking care of people and preventing those tragic losses of life,” said Zane, the board chairwoman. “Grief is normal, but a lot of people are experiencing overwhelming grief. ... It’s not just losing an item, losing things. It’s losing a life that you built with your family, and that’s a profound loss.”
There are signs that stress levels have increased in the county since the fires. Michael Kennedy, the county’s mental health director, said his division had recently seen about double its normal volume of phone calls from residents possibly experiencing problems such as anxiety and depression.
The county is set to receive about $900,000 in federal grant funds that will help cover mental-health-related costs incurred after the fires, when officials sent Behavioral Health Division staff to emergency shelters, neighborhood re-entry points and the local assistance center, Kennedy said.
County health officials intend to seek additional grant money for various “longer-term community healing” programs, he said in an interview.
Staff members in Kennedy’s division also have received training from specialized psychologists on how to provide more targeted services to residents experiencing disaster-induced trauma. Zane asked if one of them could make a presentation at the board’s Dec. 5 meeting about caring for constituents’ mental health following a disaster.
“This is a really important part of the recovery process,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose Oakmont home was destroyed. “Up to this point, we haven’t really focused on our mental health. ... It can affect the best of us at the most unexpected times.”
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @thejdmorris.