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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

More than five months after the North Bay wildfires, those most affected by the disaster continue to struggle with stress, anxiety and depression with many overburdened by the task of rebuilding their homes and dealing with the devastating loss of community.

The ongoing emotional and psychological plight of local residents who lost friends, loved ones, pets, homes and businesses was at the heart of a mental health forum held at the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa Thursday night.

“Sometimes you don’t feel strong,” said Pamela Van Halsema, an active member of the Coffey Strong neighborhood organization.

Van Hasema, who lost her home on Kerry Lane, participated in the first of two panels during the forum and spoke of myriad difficulties fire survivors are facing, from medical conditions exacerbated by anxiety and emotional distress, to the loss of jobs.

Another panelist, Karen Erickson, who lost her home of 28 years on Bent Tree Place in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, said she and about two dozen other neighbors have tried to stay in touch, getting together once a month to maintain a connection.

She said the first time they got together after the fires, only two of the 23 people in her group said they did not plan to rebuild. Now, about 12 of the 23 say they don’t plan to rebuild.

“Talking to my neighbors and my friends, I see that they’re also struggling in different ways and seem to be struggling more now than they were in the beginning,” she said.

The forum Thursday night was organized by Supervisor Shirlee Zane to address the widespread psychological aftermath of last October’s wildfires. Zane, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins spoke of the need to invest in more mental health services in the fire’s aftermath.

Dubbed the Mental Health Resiliency Forum, it occurred under the shadow of significant proposed cuts to the county’s behavioral health division, which oversees tens of millions of dollars in mental and substance abuse services.

Zane, who along with Hopkins moderated the panel discussions, referred to the proposed budget cuts as “the elephant in the room,” and vowed to figure out a way to maintain the services necessary to keep local residents from falling into mental health crises that could lead to jail or hospital emergency departments.

“I know there are a lot of people at risk out there and now is not the time to cut services,” Zane said.

The county’s health services department has proposed cuts that would slash both county staff rolls and funding to nonprofits that provide mental health and drug abuse services to fill an $8.5 million budget shortfall. The proposed staff cuts are on top of the county’s decision late last year to eliminate about 36 behavioral health staff vacancies and cut ties with the temporary workers used to fill some of those jobs.

Outside the Glaser Center, behavioral health staff whose jobs are threatened handed out flyers warning of the cuts. Laurie Mitchell, a senior client support specialist for the county’s mental health division, said the county needs more mental health services now, not less, because of “the magnitude of the devastation, the houses and businesses lost.”

The forum also featured a keynote presentation by Melissa Brymer, a national expert on the psychological impacts of natural disasters and terrorism. Brymer is director of Terrorism and Disaster Programs at the UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

Brymer said symptoms of such traumas often don’t appear until six months to a year after the event.

In the second panel, local health care leaders discussed local mental health resources and opportunities for addressing behavioral health needs. The panel included a discussion on the impact of the fires on health care organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and St. Joseph Health.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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