Coping With Trauma After a Natural Disaster

Aftermath of sonoma county's tubbs fire in the coffey park neighborhood of santa rosa, California. Image by the national guard.

Aftermath of sonoma county's tubbs fire in the coffey park neighborhood of santa rosa, California. Image by .

The fires in Northern California destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, devastated communities, and impacted thousands more beyond its reach. The Tubbs Fire missed Telecare’s program in Santa Rosa, California, but destroyed 36,000 acres of their surrounding community, and killed 22 people over the course of eight days.

Staff and members of Sonoma ACT are all accounted for and safe, however many had to evacuate and one staff person lost the home where she was moving into. "It was an unbelievable event to live through," said AJ Rylaarsdam, administrator of Sonoma ACT. "Having a fear for life, a fear for property, a fear for community — it was heartbreaking. Apocalyptic has been the way to describe it.”

Sonoma ACT Administrator AJ Rylaarsdam

Sonoma ACT Administrator AJ Rylaarsdam

While the members we served are all safe, the invisible wounds of trauma from a natural disaster can still affect people in many different ways. We chatted with AJ about her experience managing a natural disaster in real time and got a few tips on how to address the trauma that unfolds afterward.

What was your initial reaction when you got the call about the fires?

I was called at 6 a.m. to evacuate my house, so I did that first. While I was evacuating, my clinical director, Diana Freedman, who lives in Petaluma and was slightly removed from the fires, made calls to each staff member to account for everyone and ensure their safety. I went to the office that morning, but the area was not safe to be in, so that day we notified everyone to take care of their personal safety first until we had more information. Most of our work involves driving throughout the community to see members, but due to the high winds and rapid movement of the fire, it was unclear where it was safe to drive or where the fires even were.

How did you get in contact with Sonoma ACT members?

As the fires continued uncontained throughout the week, evacuations continued in different areas, so the entire time was a process of accounting for all of our members. We went to visit them in their homes, provided directions and education on evacuation centers, encouraged them to stay in their home as much as possible because the air quality was so bad, but then also to follow any directions by police or firefighters if there were evacuations. Diana had all calls coming into the office directed to her, and our communications stayed open 24/7.

Are there any practices from Trauma Informed Care you called on to move through this event with staff and members?

An important part of Trauma Informed Care is taking universal precautions. In first aid training, taking universal precautions means we don’t know who might have a communicable disease, so we’re going to put on gloves. After a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, when you have an encounter with someone you’re going to treat them in a way that’s sensitive to someone who may have had trauma. One aspect of what that looks like is a lot of asking permission: “Is this conversation okay?” “My plan is we were going to talk about this, is that okay?”

How did you use ؼ Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?

This has been a fantastic resource. Shortly after we returned to the office, a counselor from (ؼ EAP provider) came in to educate the team about mental health after a natural disaster. Certain symptoms of trauma and PTSD, like difficulty focusing, might become apparent outright, but many symptoms may not be as visible. As mental health care workers, we have powerful reserves. It's essential to take care of each other in a way that recognizes a lot of the symptoms are invisible. You may think someone's okay, and they may think they are okay, but it will serve us all to continue to check-in in a concrete, ongoing way.

I also encouraged staff to take advantage of the EAP program individually. We're going to meet with a counselor again as a team after the holidays, and maybe three months after that, just to ensure that not only the people exhibiting overt symptoms of distress are getting help.

How You Can Help:

Donate Money: 

Donate Time: American Red Cross/Other Volunteer Opportunities
Volunteers of all kinds are encouraged to register with the Red Cross.  Licensed clinical mental health workers are needed to provide support in the communities affected. 
To find out how to help, call: 707- 577-7600 or  to sign up to volunteer.  

You can also contact Ricardo Martinez, DGS Chief Procurement Officer, at 916-317-6451 or 

Alameda County licensed clinicians are encouraged to volunteer as well: for more information on how to volunteer with the County efforts, please contact

More Resources:

For a roundup of crisis and emergency support resources, .

Practicing Gratitude Throughout the Year

Gratitude Art.jpg

Thanksgiving is a holiday that readily embraces gratitude, but studies show we should be embracing it more than just one day a year. cites gratitude as helping "people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships."

Nina Kalley-Wilson, Recovery Specialist, and Angela Duncan, Peer Recovery Coach, created a gratitude tree for staff and clients to post "leaves of gratitude" for all to see at thurston mason evaluation and treatment center in olympia, washington.

Nina Kalley-Wilson, Recovery Specialist, and Angela Duncan, Peer Recovery Coach, created a gratitude tree for staff and clients to post "leaves of gratitude" for all to see at thurston mason evaluation and treatment center in olympia, washington.

The practice of gratitude can bring many health benefits, but sometimes it seems difficult to get past the outrage of the day's events. At Telecare, gratitude is used as a component of our . Our programs also like to work it into their culture, such as when our  (E&T) program created a "gratitude tree" filled with leaves detailing what staff and clients are grateful for and what brings them hope. They placed the tree on a central wall where it can be enjoyed by all and added to as the days go by.

"Having experienced recovery, gratitude keeps me humble and helps me remember where I am right now and keep the momentum to move forward," said Angela Duncan, a Peer Recovery Coach at Thurston Mason E&T. "Last year I was grateful to get a grant to pay for electricity; this year I have a job to pay it!"

"Gratitude allows us to center on the here and now and really feel the hope and support in our lives," said Nina Kalley-Wilson, Recovery Specialist at Thurston Mason E&T. "We asked about the here and now, as well as what individuals will be grateful for when they return home."

Below, we compiled a few ways you can incorporate gratitude into your life on a day-to-day basis.

  1. Take a few minutes. Set aside a few minutes each day to sit in your favorite place—a garden, your room, your backyard. Reflect on the day and make a list of three things in your life for which you are grateful. Share it with a friend and pass the gratitude forward!
  2. Keep a gratitude journal. Each day, write down a few things for which you are grateful. Focus on people, pets, or your health, rather than material objects, and try to mix it up from time to time to expand your awareness of the offerings around you.
  3. Write a thank you note. Letters of appreciation go for miles, and in the age of social media the chance of getting a written one has significantly dropped. Write a note to someone expressing your appreciation for their impact on your life and drop it in the mail.
  4. Give a compliment on a daily basis. Whether it be directed at someone or sharing your appreciation of something close by, a few words of recognition can open a world of possibilities. In 1906 Mark Twain said, "I can live on a good compliment two weeks with nothing else to eat." Imagine how far this simple gesture goes in 2017.
  5. Join a cause you find important. Whether it's donating time, money, or skills, standing behind something you believe in can offer newfound appreciation for communities, as well as newfound appreciation for yourself.

LA Leaders Explore Underground Downtown LA

This month, ؼ Los Angeles leaders got together to journey through downtown LA’s underground, visiting old speakeasies and haunted hotels.

The group heard scary stories, met some of downtown LA’s resident artists and curators, had delicious food at city staple Weird Clifton’s Republic, and went on a tour through the Last Bookstore.

The tour culminated with a sage cleansing ceremony—to get rid of any bad vibes they might have caught visiting the famous sites.

San Bernardino Team Building

In the summer, San Bernardino ACT/MAPS/FACT/TIE-CC & BHICCI staff gathered for a team building experience that incorporated the RCCS values and principals through painting.

Staff were divided into five teams and created a mural that represented one of the: judgment, individual uniqueness, power, spirituality, respect. It was a fun and collaborative experience that allowed each staff member to work together showing each staffs artistic ability. The paintings are now displayed on our walls as a reminder of the foundation of the services we provide.