Mental Health First Aid Is Important in an Era of Climate Disaster

It’s late spring, and I’m hiking Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma County with therapist, ecopsychologist, and California naturalist Mary Good. A mist is drifting down, and we have the park mostly to ourselves. In October 2017, 80 percent of Sugarloaf’s 3,900 acres of oak woodlands were scorched by the firestorms in California’s North Bay. But today, most of what stretches out before us is green and vibrant, brushed with the last signs of a wildflower superbloom that erupted from the ash earlier this spring.

A dozen miles west in Santa Rosa, contractors are rebuilding some of the more than 5,000 homes destroyed there. The last of 2.2 million tons of fire debris has been hauled away from the 383 square miles of charred land in the region. And therapists like Good continue seeing fire survivors pro bono, helping them navigate the aftermath of the disaster.

“It was an absolute trauma for everybody involved. The fire is over, but the grief may last a long time,” Good says. “We live in a time where these natural disasters are going to be happening more and more. How do you develop resilience? What do you do to feel like you can be safe in the world again?”

Developing that resilience seems crucial. According to climate research from NASA, we can expect more droughts, stronger and more intense hurricanes, and big changes in precipitation patterns.

As climate change-related disasters become more common, there is a critical need to address the mental health of survivors after a catastrophe. Santa Rosa residents—and the greater Sonoma County community—rushed in to offer support services through pop-up holistic clinics, mental health education, and free counseling services. It’s a response that may help other communities cope with future disasters.

The magnitude and chaos of the North Bay fires left local government and nonprofit organizations overwhelmed—the fires plowed through several neighborhoods overnight, sending more than 4,000 people to 43 shelters…

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