Fire victims face depression, loneliness: experts
Mental health experts have fanned out across southern California to help people struggling with depression and loss caused by the region's devastating wildfires.
The fires have ravaged 1,800 homes, killed seven people and sent hundreds of thousands into temporary shelters and although firefighters are now making progress, experts say the psychological scars will remain.
"Every citizen in San Diego County has been affected in one way or another," said Daran Osborne, a firefighter and spokesman for San Diego Fire Rescue. "Right now we are seeing a transition back to normalcy."
But all too often, transition for those left homeless means beginning to realize that their welcome with family or friends is limited, or that their paychecks cannot withstand long-term hotel bills.
"Some of them are overwhelmed, very sad, stressed, angry, frustrated," said Karen Hoganson, the Red Cross's disaster mental health supervisor who spent the past few days counseling people in a shelter at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.
"They have feelings of loneliness because home was all they had," she said, adding that a team of 75 Red Cross mental health counselors was on its way to help in the coming weeks.
Most of her work so far has been making sure people have their basic needs covered and know where to seek aid, from insurance agents to federal agencies.
"They need to be directed where to go. It's really not counseling at this point. It is crisis intervention," she said.
Shavaar Thompson, 23, stopped by the stadium as it was closing up operations on Friday. Its electronic billboard outside read: "We are no longer accepting donations," and aid groups were rapidly packing up so that the San Diego Chargers American football team could play as scheduled on Sunday.
Thompson's family spent one night in a tent at the stadium after the mandatory evacuation Monday, then went to stay with friends. They returned home Thursday to find their home still standing but uninhabitable due to heavy water damage, and soot and ash from the homes across the street that were scorched to the ground.
In addition, they discovered that their computer and television set were missing, possibly due to looters.
"The past couple of days I have been really depressed," she said. "I don't know if it is lack of control over our lives or what, but everything we have worked for has been damaged."
At a table filled with donated goods, she picked up a box of juice for her two children, age 1 and 3, and browsed some paperback novels for herself.
"We have just exhausted our funds," she said.
She said she applied to federal authorities for financial assistance, and they told her it would be 12-14 days before they received any response.
She has been unable to work at her job at a home lender's association because the office was in a location hit by the fires.
"Once you find out you have lost your home, devastating sadness, helplessness and hopelessness come in to play," said Jeff Rowe, the supervising psychiatrist for children's mental health services for San Diego County.
He said mental health experts focus on getting victims in contact with people in similar situations so that their sense of identity can be reaffirmed and they can be involved in their own rebuilding.
Other concerns can be survivor guilt, a mixture of relief and anxiety which afflicts some people who did not lose their homes while they may know neighbors, friends or relatives who did.
"Having them go from the passive victim stance, gradually you shift them into an act of participation," which could involve volunteering or donating to those in need. "That helps," he said.
"The other thing to mention is that crises occur, and to think that they are not going to occur is kind of silly, because everybody will be exposed to a crisis sometime in their life," he said.All rights reserved. © 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.