Becky Parker was finding it a bit chilly at the Stampede Association’s Wildfire Relief event this morning so she purchased a Cariboo Strong fundraising hoodie to keep warm. Gaeil Farrar photo

AFTERBURN: How can I help?

Creating connections and embracing community post wildfire

How are you?

It’s a question that is important to not only ask ourselves, but ask those around us.

What has become evident following the 2017 wildfires is that many people in the community are facing increased stress. We may not all have lost homes, but even though we may not recognize it, many of us continue to be deeply affected by the events of last summer.

This is the second in a five-part series on mental health and wellness following the 2017 wildfires, being collaborated on between the Tribune and the Mental Health Working Group. While this series is by no means a substitute for professional support, please use this as a guide to point yourself and your loved ones towards the many resources available, events currently being planned and activities related to improving your mental health and wellness in Williams Lake.

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There are endless stories of moments, during the 2017 wildfires, when someone held out their hand and helped.

From the woman in the gas station in Barrier, who gave out free coffee to evacuating Williams Lakers, to the countless offers of places to stay, or people who stayed behind, with or without permits, and watered flowers, fed animals or, at the worst moments, saved their neighbour’s house from destruction, everyone has a story.

For Jeremy Vogt, head pastor at the Cariboo Bethel Church, that meant coming back while Williams Lake residents were evacuated, as part of a team of mental health professionals and spiritual leaders who were invited back into the city to support the agency workers and first responders left in the community.

They worked in the mess hall, the hotels where RCMP members were staying, cruised hallways at the Cariboo Regional District, offering support to those who needed it.

It’s an important role that Vogt plays in his role as pastor, which includes looking after the mental wellness of his parishioners.

“I have a firm belief that a whole person includes the mental, emotional, spiritual and relational, so we try to pay attention to the whole person,” he said. “We listen and we ask questions, try to speak encouraging words.”

It’s something he hopes to see the community do more of, especially coming into this wildfire season.

Vogt is a member of the Williams Lake Mental Health Working Group. While he stresses he is not a mental health professional — he said they are differently trained with tools and techniques he doesn’t have — it’s part of his work in the community on resiliency post the 2017 wildfires.

“Our personal mental health is directly tied to the quality and health of our relationships. You cannot have mental health in isolation,” he said.

It’s those relationships that are important to build as the community recovers from wildfires, and there are simple things people can do to help those around them suffering from stress and anxiety.

Step one is noticing when people around you are stressed.

Some of the signs that a person might be stressed or anxious include a change in usual behaviours, watching someone become flustered or flushed, or have emotional reactions they might not have otherwise. Extreme changes in mood, irritability, a loss of patience or if someone stops taking the same level of care in themselves they might have otherwise are all other signs. Other signs are harder to catch.

When you do suspect someone is stressed, it’s important to reach out, said Vogt, and there are things you can do to make it easier.

“Being a good listener — asking that one question has opened up so many conversations: ‘tell me what you are experiencing. It seems like something is going on.’

“Or, if you know it is about the fires, you can say, ‘Hey, I don’t think I’ve heard your story. Tell me about our evacuation.’”

He said that one question alone, like many of us have experienced every time the wildfires have been brought up, brings up story after story.

“Total strangers, you don’t even know their names, you just say ‘Tell me about your last summer,’ and a conversation starts. By the time you are done, you feel connected.”

It’s those connections that are vital when a community is in need.

Janice Breck, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association, has direct language you can use if approaching a friend.

“I can see by (state what it is that you notice, for instance, by the look on your face) that you’re feeling anxious (stressed, upset); would you like to talk about it?” or, “Have you felt this way before?” If they say yes: “What did you do then that helped you feel better?” If they say no: “What do you think you need to help you feel better?”

On top of that, Vogt recommends working on being a good listener, and passing on words of appreciation and encouragement.

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