Suzanne Grimmesey
Paul Wellman

To respond to the emotional fallout sparked by this winter’s onslaught of fire, mud, and boulders, Hospice of Santa Barbara had to double its number of intake workers — from one to two — and bring on four more bereavement counselors. Among mental-health responders, that was just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Hundreds of mental-health responders — some licensed clinicians and others trained in the mental-health equivalent of first aid — took to the schools, where they created “compassion centers”; to the streets, where neighborhood repopulation was taking place; and to memorial services. Leading the effort was the county’s Behavioral Wellness department, but joining it was a far-flung sprawling coalition of clergy, psychologists, schools, hospice, and the Red Cross.

“There is no advice or anything you can say to make things better,” said the hospice center’s Amara Maliszewski. “You just have to be there, show up, and be present. Right now is crucial, but it will also be crucial several months from now when life has started to return to normal.”

Suzanne Grimmesey, spokesperson for Behavioral Wellness, said the sooner psychological first aid starts, the faster the recovery and the better the healing. The demand for community compassion centers, she said, is starting to wind down, as many people affected by the disasters are shifting focus to the realities of rebuilding their homes and getting their lives back on track. But many people, Maliszewski added, “will not be feeling normal at all [even as] life is getting back to normal.” They may experience trouble focusing or socializing. Often overlooked, she added, is the grief caused by loss of pets. “For some people, pets are their children, their best friends, their life companions,” she said.

Hospice is offering grief counseling free of charge and is hosting community workshops. Grimmsey said the county’s call center — recently shut down — will be reactivated in response to community interest.


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