PARADISE — To live where fire is common and often very destructive can take a toll on the mind, and many in Butte County have grown weary of watching communities burned out while feeling alone.
The county’s mental health services were not surprised when they saw requests for help increase after the Camp Fire. But then Butte County Behavioral Health revealed something unexpected happened, unfortunately directly related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Director Scott Kennelly revealed that while there was an increase in demand after the Camp Fire and into 2019, during the period into 2020 and during the pandemic in particular, calls for services decreased.
The county saw an overall 11% decrease in all clients served, 13% fewer crisis (face to face) encounters and nearly 8% fewer crisis phone calls. There was also a 24% decrease in all inpatient admissions. Kennelly said the center heard concerns directly correlating fear about the virus and increased isolation during the lockdowns as reasons why fewer people were seeking help.
The center continued offering mental health services and crisis response via phone calls, but saw a small drop in calls for aid, even during a period of high anxiety about the virus and more fires in 2020.
This brings concerns that people will continue to be isolated and not get help during these crises, Kennelly said.
It also compounds worries that fire survivors already struggling to fulfill basic needs will not get help with their mental trauma. And research from different studies such as from the Institute of Environmental Research and Public Health shows exposure to a natural disaster can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, and suggests a statistically significant increase in PTSD rates “18 months after a natural disaster.”
A major portion of those who were impacted by fire, already representing a population touched by mental health concerns, are those 60 years of age and older.
The Chico State Passages Connections Program is contracted with Behavioral Health and specifically serves and refers senior clients to services around the community. Program Supervisor Shannon Simmons said since the fire, it has become very clear those seniors who remain in Butte County have multiple needs, and there are disproportionate effects on older adults from the Camp Fire and the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, more adults officially killed in the fire were seniors, Simmons said. In addition, one of the primary reasons for this is blatantly financial. The fact is, those seniors who had money or were well insured largely all left the county, she said.
Those who remain tend to be low-income or on a tight fixed income and have nowhere else to go.
“When you don’t have basic needs or are very insecure… that is going to drive up stress levels which will compound physical and mental health issues,” she said. “In rural areas in particular, they are often lower income, they don’t have access to transportation, are socially isolated … and may be disconnected from the community at large.”
And for those who have survived, Simmons said a number of barriers for “getting into housing that is secure and appropriate for their needs” have only worsened in the housing crisis before and after the fire.
“Ultimately, given the preexisting factors of being in a rural county that has a poor transportation system that doesn’t always work for older adults, (with) the level of poverty and low income folks we have and lack of housing, these factors are bearing down on our most vulnerable older adults,” she said.
These barriers worsen the mental and emotional crises already in place when people lose their homes and communities.
“Trauma has really incapacitated their executive (higher) functioning,” Simmons said. “They just are so stuck; they don’t always know how to put one foot in front of the other.”
Many of her clients were already “pretty isolated,” she added, and displacement exacerbates that social isolation. And it is more difficult for older individuals to ask for and get the support they need to move forward, she added.
“Those pre-existing stressors are compounded with the disaster and loss of any security they had,” she said. “It completely swept the rug out from underneath so many people in that regard. It’s harder to cope and feel hopeful about what their future is going to look like.”
After the North Complex fires, many who lost their community in the Camp Fire have to relive their trauma, having gone through weeks of hazardous smoke and worry about the fires growing.
And the pandemic only made matters worse.
“Since March, there’s been an increase in isolation, and an uptick in depressive disorders and anxiety disorders,” she said. “For older adults living in nursing facilities going on lockdowns, they feel like they’re going crazy.”
While services for telehealth have been offered and increased at Passages and countywide, technology barriers continue to make it more difficult to reach these older adults, Simmons added. And the program’s companion program of volunteers who visit older adults can no longer do home visits, so contact by phone is the only solution.
“It’s not perfect, no one prefers it, but we’re definitely doing our darndest to try to meet the needs of these vulnerable people while keeping them safe,” she said. “But I do miss my clients and would love to be in person with them.”