By Spencer Spotts | August 25, 2020
ETR Marketing and Communications, ETR
Over the past few months, summer wildfires have once again ignited across the country, especially hitting areas of California with high intensity during a time with already stretched and limited resources. As a California-based organization, we are acutely aware of how deeply this impact is felt by individuals and communities across the state. While some face evacuation, even more are experiencing the repercussions of the wildfire crisis emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The implications of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, overlapping health crises, and extremely poor air quality that restricts us to staying indoors can have a widespread effect on our mental health. Combined with the existing stress and anxiety as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing ramifications of health inequities, we recognize just how terrifying, exhausting, and catastrophic this moment in time feels for many people across California.
We are dedicated to practicing our value of being responsive to emerging needs and trends not only in our products and services, but within our workplace and communities at large as well. As such, we are providing some tips and resources for understanding and responding to the emotional distress and mental health challenges triggered by these events. We welcome you to share these with family, colleagues, and friends who may be impacted.
Understanding Emotional Distress and Wildfires
Wildfires and other large-scale natural disasters can have a variety of impacts on the emotional and mental health of individuals, even after the disastrous event has ended. The American Psychological Association (APA) and SAMHSA identify the following as a few common responses:
In addition to stress and anxiety, individuals may also experience episodes of depression, painful grief, shock, denial, irritability, and disrupted sleep. It is important to remember that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to react to emotional distress and trauma from disastrous events.
Other factors can also exacerbate these stress responses, such as being a child or adolescent, experiencing the loss of a loved one or home to the wildfire, or having previously experienced traumatic stress from a wildfire or natural disaster.
Supporting Youth and Children
Young people and children may need specific support to help in understanding and coping with the stress and trauma of natural disasters like these. Experts from APA recommend taking steps such as allowing for higher levels of dependency and affection than usual, creating ongoing opportunities for playfulness and play activities, and fostering a space for older children to openly communicate about their experiences and feelings with you.
The California Department of Public Health also encourages parents and caregivers of children to limit the intake of news and media related to wildfires, maintaining a sense of routine and schedule (as much as possible), and avoiding the tendency to provide comfort in the form of ungrounded promises (such as “this won’t ever happen again”).
Connecting with Free Emotional Distress Resources
The following are free community resources accessible for you to help with coping and processing the impacts of these wildfires:
Free Disaster Distress Hotline
The Disaster Distress Hotline provides free 24/7/365 crisis counseling and support to those experiencing emotional distress related to natural disasters. This toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service is available to all residents in the United States and its territories. Calls and texts are answered by trained, caring counselors from crisis call centers located throughout the United States. Standard text and data message rates will apply when texting from mobile phones.
Call 1-800-985-5990 (Spanish, press “2”)
English: Text "TalkWithUs" to 66746
Spanish: Text “Hablanos” to 66746
Optum Free Help Line
Optum, a leading health and behavioral health services company, is offering a free emotional-support help line. The toll-free number will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as necessary. The service is free of charge and open to anyone. Specially trained Optum mental health specialists help people manage their stress and anxiety so they can continue to address their everyday needs. Callers may also receive referrals to community resources to help them with specific concerns, including financial and legal matters.
Call 866-342-6892 to connect with the Optum Free Help Line.
Free Online Mindfulness Exercise from ETR
Practicing mindfulness during times of heightened emotional intensity can be a helpful tool in managing symptoms of emotional distress. Plus, mindfulness can be practice anywhere at any time! Use this free online mindfulness practice exercise from Stephanie Guinosso, Senior Research Associate at ETR, to help you with coping and responding to the traumatic impact of these wildfires.
Spencer Spotts (they/them/theirs and he/him/his) is the Marketing Coordinator at ETR. They create and coordinate science-based, forward-thinking, inclusive marketing content for internal and external newsletters, blogs, and other platforms across multiple ETR initiatives and projects. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.