Mental health issues increasing as Sonoma County enters new phase of fires’ aftermath
Martha Marquez is not prone to cry at movies and usually keeps a tight rein on her emotions. But when a Red Cross worker called her up recently and told her she was checking on her mental health after the loss of her Santa Rosa home, Marquez could not hold back the tears.
“She said to me, ‘We know everyone is offering financial assistance and donating stuff, but what about mental health? How are you doing?' and I just started crying,” she said.
Marquez, 56, lost her home on Fairway Knoll Court when the Tubbs fire raced up the northern slopes of Fountaingrove on Oct. 9. The firestorm also completely destroyed Paradise Ridge Winery, where she worked as an event manager and where her husband, Fernando, worked as the estate property manager. Her daughter, Brianna, also worked at the winery part time.
For more than a month, Marquez and her family have been dealing with the daunting logistics of recovery, federal aid forms, insurance claims and home reconstruction estimates. But now something else has settled into her life like a thick fog, caused by the overwhelming uncertainty of the future, the loss of control and the inescapable memories of that traumatic night and the days that followed.
“I'm normally a very positive person, usually in a good mood. It's just that I'm a little lost,” Marquez said. “First I was saying, I'm taking it day by day, and now I'm just saying, I'm OK.”
October's deadly wildfires have left an untold number of North Bay residents battling new levels of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues that experts say are anticipated in the wake of such a profound tragedy.
Therapists and other mental health professionals are seeing an increasing number of people seeking help, and Sonoma County officials are bracing for what could be an unprecedented wave of mental health care issues stemming from the historic disaster and its ongoing aftermath.
They say the growing need for mental health services will require a community-wide response that goes hand in hand with any regional strategy for rebuilding decimated neighborhoods and businesses.
“It's been six weeks since the fires - the impact on the community has been incredible and it's not going to just go away,” said Maryellen Curran, a clinical psychologist and the mental health director for Santa Rosa Community Health, the county's largest system of health clinics.
Curran said the demand for mental health is on the rise in the past few weeks, with many patients exhibiting signs of enduring grief, depression, irritability, anger and sleep disturbance. The level of these symptoms depends “on the exposure they had to the immediacy of the fires,” she said.
Curran and other mental health experts say that for those who lost a loved one or fled from visible flames that ultimately consumed their home, the mental health effects will be more profound.
Michael Kennedy, Sonoma County's mental health director, said the number of calls received by his department has doubled since the fires, with many of those calls coming from new patients. Local health care providers and clinics have only now begun to log the increase in patients seeking mental health assistance and it could be sometime before the impact on the local community's mental health is fully assessed.
For Marquez, the fires have left her feeling like a different person.
“It's an emotional roller coaster. I'm not a crier at all … that's why I know I need help, because my mental health is not getting any better,” she said.
Marquez, who lived with her husband and daughter about a mile and a half from the winery where she worked, was awakened the night of the firestorm by a phone call at about 1 a.m. from an elderly woman, a tenant at the winery estate, who said she and others were evacuating the property. The tenant asked that Fernando call the winery owners.
Marquez, who along with her husband decided to drive by the winery, said she got dressed and went outside and saw smoke and ash, and could see cars speeding down Thomas Lake Harris Drive, away from Cross Creek Road and the Mark West Springs area.
“I told my husband, ‘I am not going to the winery, I'm getting the hell out of here,'?” she said, adding that the three left in separate cars and embarked on a frightening exodus she knows will haunt her for sometime.
She experienced flames and embers flying in the howling wind, trees and branches in roadways, the smell of heavy smoke and the fear of being burned alive in her car while stuck in traffic.
“My husband and I both feel like we don't have control over our lives,” she said. “Your financial future, your home, everything has just kind of been stripped from us. It's hard to make decisions, because you don't feel like you're mentally healthy and you have to make very big decisions.”