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Six Months After The Camp Fire: Butte County Schools Need More Mental Health Counselors

Noah Berger
AP Photo

Six months since the Camp Fire struck, officials in Butte County told KQED's Michelle Wiley that some students are experiencing the same mental health issues they had just after the fire. And they need more counselors to support them.

Pamela Beeman had been retired for five years when she got the call from Butte County.


“My husband is my witness when I got the phone call I said, 'Oh no I really don't really want to go back to work.' And they said ‘No we really need you and we need more people.” So you just you just can't say no to that,” Beeman said.

Since then, she's been working at an elementary school in Concow as a fire recovery counselor. Beeman said that right now, a lot of kids are still living with uncertainty.

“They're misplaced, they're doubled up in lodgings and they're unsure where they're going to be,” she said. “They keep thinking they've got a place and then it all falls through.”

And it’s not just housing uncertainty they’re struggling with. For a lot of people who witnessed the devastation of the Camp Fire, the trauma they experienced just after the incident is coming up again. Especially for kids.

Credit Noah Berger / AP Photo
AP Photo
The Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif on Nov. 8, 2018


Director of Student Services for Butte County schools Dena Kapsalis said they’re seeing many manifestations of trauma.

“A lot of acting out, sleepless … you know … tiredness, inability to focus, shutting down being unable to maintain relationships with adults or peers,” she said.  

Kapsalis said counselors try to view these manifestations of trauma as forms of communication.

“The gift of being with kids is that they don't second guess themselves typically. So we're afforded the ability to have more transparent you know responses and communication from them,” she said.

That transparency can be a real asset for staff that are trying to help kids address their trauma.



Credit Noah Berger / AP Photo
AP Photo
Residents seek comfort after Camp Fire.

“With kids, it's right out there on the table and then we can respond you know as the adults in the community,” she said. “We can respond quickly and maybe more accurately to what's really happening with them. So they're communicating loss, they're communicating a need for help. Need for support.”

But while kids may show their symptoms more obviously, seeing those signs in their teachers can be even more difficult, Kapsalis said.

“With adults it's much harder, right? Because they have all kinds of systems of coping that often disguise what's really going on with them,” she said.

While school counselors wouldn’t normally serve teachers as well as students, in this case they’re making an exception, Kapsalis said. Counselors have started posting up in staff rooms and hallways so they can encourage teachers to talk about what they’re experiencing and connect them with services.

But despite a need for support across the board, officials said they're still struggling to get enough school counselors to meet their needs.

Roy Applegate helps lead the trauma response team in Butte County schools. He said there are six schools that have requested help that can’t be provided.

“So it's a little bit like rain in the desert in the summer,” he said. “It’s just as soon as it hits the ground it disappears.”


Credit Noah Berger / AP Photo
AP Photo
Rescue dogs search Camp Fire remains in Paradise, Calif.

So far they have 23 people they’ve hired with schedules ranging from a few hours to full time. But as trauma symptoms get worse, and the next fire season gets closer, the need for more staff is rising.

“Recently we've heard about this wave of repeat symptoms that people have reported and we were warned about that by the trauma experts. This is the way it would happen. You know there would be an immediate need, and then a drop, then another wave,” Applegate said. “So we’re hitting one of those waves right now. So that pushes the demand for the counseling services, not just that, just all the support.”

As for counselor Pamela Beeman, she’s committed to working at the school through the spring term. But doesn’t know if she can continue on after that.

“I probably won't be able to continue and I think another woman has had to take a pass. So those schools are really needy. They could really, really use the help,” Beeman said.

Beeman said — whether you're a student or a teacher or a parent — the trauma from the Camp Fire is an ongoing daily challenge for everyone in the area. And the recovery is going to take time and patience.