Mental health collaborative tackles fire-related trauma in Sonoma County

Local mental health collaborative addresses long-term mental health needs of Sonoma County residents affected by North Bay fires.|

When a North Bay fire survivor walks into her private practice office, Santa Rosa psychologist Alisa Liguori Stratton never presumes to know exactly what they’re going through.

Liguori Stratton, who lost the Fountaingrove home where she and her family lived, has a pretty good idea of the type of post-fire trauma many are suffering, whether they lost a home or not.

But the experience - the 15 minutes she and her family had to flee their home, the loss of everything they own - is not a type of cheat sheet that informs her practice.

Instead, it fuels her commitment to address the wide-ranging and long-lasting emotional and psychological impact of last year’s fires.

Liguori Stratton is part of the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative, a new initiative aimed at tackling Sonoma County’s long-term mental health recovery needs.

It’s an unprecedented effort that includes ramping up free counseling and therapeutic sessions, employing aggressive outreach services in diverse communities and conducting rigorous research to evaluate the reach and effectiveness of the interventions.

Ultimately, the initiative could result in a mental health recovery model that could be used by other communities affected by natural disasters.

“It was so huge and so all encompassing, it affected people in all aspects of their lives, it affected their loved ones and people they knew - it was a community trauma,” she said. “It was pretty impossible to be unaffected. When something is so big, the effects can last for quite a while.”

Fire-related trauma remains

Five months later, Sonoma County hillsides that were blackened for so long have turned green. But fire-related trauma abounds, triggered by anything from the smell of firewood to a sudden high wind alert to ongoing stress over rebuilding.

Since the fires, county officials report an uptick in the use of the local Crisis Stabilization Unit in west Santa Rosa, while local mental health providers and hotlines have seen a spike in the number of clients with post-fire related issues. Measuring the extent of the impact to the community is difficult, because there is no central repository for the volume of care provided by health centers, hospitals, clinics, and private practice therapists and psychiatrists, said Debbie Mason, CEO of Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma County, which is heading the collaborative.

Mason said the project “has the potential to be the largest collaborative disaster mental health response seen to date” in the country. The collaborative enlists the help of local therapists, social workers and psychologists, and its research component measuring the effectiveness of its strategies will be conducted in partnership with Stanford University and the National Center for PTSD at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System.

“That information will inform the next fire disaster response for our area – and inform the nation and the world with the learning from our resiliency response efforts,” she said.

Mason said the collaboration’s outreach is not limited to those who lost a home or loved one.

“We’re not checking their address to see if they actually came from a burned out house,” Mason said. “This is aimed at anyone who feels that they just need help and coping skills since the fires.”

The collaborative’s multistrategy approach includes:

Contracting with the VA’s post-traumatic stress disorder center to engage in research that will measure the project’s effectivenesses in alleviating trauma-related symptoms;

Bringing in national experts to train local psychologists, social workers and therapists who want to be part of the collaborative. Each will get 12 hours of training in psycho-educational support for post-disaster recovery and resilience;

Sending teams of therapists to neighborhood meetings, town halls, school events or employer sponsored luncheons, along with outreach through social media; and

Drop-in therapy sessions made available through the participation of Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, with the initiative paying counselors to run group sessions.

The project’s first year budget is now more than $800,000. Mason’s foundation has contributed $150,000 and another $50,000 grant has been donated by Dreaming Tree Wines. Also, Global Sports Development, though the foundation, has contributed $40,000, she said.

Wide range of partners

Partners in the initiative include county mental health staff, the Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Redwood Psychological Association, Alliance Medical Center, St. Joseph Health and the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The project also calls for money to be invested in Sonoma County’s National Alliance on Mental Illness to help it expand hours and counseling teams and take calls from people who want individual counseling. NAMI will then refer people to special trauma-trained participating counselors.

Mason said the effort will be widely publicized through an advertising campaign coordinated with Sonoma County public health staff. The ad campaign will help people identify trauma symptoms and where they can get help.

Laura Strom, a local marriage and family therapist and past president of both the state and local chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, said the initiative builds on work local therapists have been continually doing since the fires.

This works includes holding support circles for those affected by fires held at Catholic Charities on Airway Drive in Santa Rosa every Saturday from 3 to 4:30 p.m. RECAMFT has also put together a list of about 100 therapists willing to do up to five free therapy sessions for anyone affected by the fire, she said.

Strom said her association just got funding to offer free “trauma-informed” yoga and iRest mediation class for fire survivors, beginning April 3 and 7 at YogaOne, 416 B St, Ste. D, Santa Rosa.

“The impact of the fire on everyone in this community cannot be underestimated,” Strom said. “It’s not just those who lost their homes.”

A novel aspect of the initiative involves medical research headed by the National Center for PTSD, part of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. Adrienne Heinz, a clinical research psychologist who directs the center, said the initiative will likely publish some of its findings and make it free to the public.

Heinz pointed out that long-term mental health initiatives that address natural disasters are uncommon and in many ways the local effort will be result in pioneering research. She said that for the most part, post-disaster crisis counseling is limited to one or two sessions in a shelter.

The amount of time it takes to recover from fire-related stress and trauma can vary, said Liguori Stratton, the Santa Rosa psychologist. She said mild to moderate stress reactions are normal, and don’t usually become chronic.

“Acute symptoms can be more enduring, especially without treatment, so treatment is extremely important,” she said.

For Liguori, documenting her and her family’s loss through photography has helped her “contain” the tragedy, “when it can seem so overwhelming.

“It has helped me process the enormity of it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or

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