HOPE 805 Promotes Mental Wellness and Community in the Wake of Natural Disasters

Photo courtesy of Hope 805

Alondra Sierra
Isla Vista Beat Reporter

This past weekend the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire to date, was officially contained, but the emotional aftermath remains. From families directly impacted by this year’s wildfires to those still recovering from fires past, news of these disasters can trigger harrowing, if not distressing, reminders that hit close to home for communities like Santa Barbara.

Next month marks the one-year anniversary of the Thomas Fire that swept through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, followed shortly after by the debris flows that hit Montecito on Jan. 9 earlier this year. This, coupled with the pervasive news of recent and neighboring fires, makes for a tough holiday season, to say the very least.

To help community members get through the holidays and finals season, The Bottom Line spoke with California HOPE 805, a local disaster recovery organization, to understand the types of emotional impact, the recovery process, and the community resiliency that follow natural disasters.

Holidays Intensify Post-Disaster Stress

“Holidays are usually a stressful time for many people to begin with,” said Michelle Drum, one of two team leaders at HOPE 805. “But because the Thomas Fire started on Dec. 5 of last year … the holidays intensify the [sense of] loss for lots of people.”

The holidays, according to Drum, take a heavy emotional toll for several reasons: the chilly winter weather, earlier dark skies, and the festivities that implicate a time of family, friends, and holiday cheer.

HOPE 805 is reaching out to local communities to teach others about mood fluctuations that may arise from these circumstances.

In response to the Thomas Fire and its subsequent debris flows, Santa Barbara county received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) back in March to establish HOPE 805. The organization provides counseling, outreach, and education to direct others towards already existing resources available locally.

One of these resources is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

SAMHSA, in collaboration with the American Red Cross, created a guide to help individuals understand common post-disaster holiday reactions, such as feeling physically and mentally drained or overwhelmed by daily activities, and feeling sad or lonely amid the holiday cheer. These reactions, however, vary from person to person and surface at various points in time.

Post-Disaster Responses Vary, But All are Valid.

“No matter what you’re going through, it’s all normal. It’s all valid. Every reaction you have is completely okay for you to have,” said HOPE 805 crisis counselor Jatzibe Sandoval when she presented the phases of disaster in a comprehensive training manual to the Isla Vista Community Service District Board earlier this month.

The Phases of Disasters manual outlines the progression of community responses — from the emotional highs to the emotional lows — after a disaster occurs. Beginning at the pre-disaster phase and ending with a reconstruction phase, reactions span from feelings of guilt and panic to community bonding and concern for others.

The lowest emotional point is the disillusionment phase which includes triggering events like the smell of smoke or news of a neighboring fire and the anniversary of the event.

While hearing about the phases can be upsetting, Drum strongly believes in the need to educate the community on these reactions, so others know they are not alone.

“This isn’t what one individual goes through, it’s what the entire community goes through,” Drum said. “These reactions that the community are having are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.”

She hopes that community members and students affected by these disasters set aside some time for themselves.

Take Time for Self-Care

SAMHSA suggests that during these stressful times, people should get enough rest and eat healthy by maintaining a balanced diet and drinking plenty of water.

Additionally, Drum encourages students experiencing post-disaster reactions on top of exam stress to prioritize mindfulness. Staying connected with the community is another way to calm oneself. In other words, reaching out to people and staying informed about the happenings in and around the community may help relieve some of the stress experienced this season.

“The anniversary is coming up. It’s going to be a time for remembering, but also a difficult time,” Sandoval said. “Be gentle and patient with yourselves.”

To learn about post-disaster recovery resources, contact California HOPE 805 at (805) 845-2973. To stay prepared, register for emergency alerts at readysbc.org.