Krista Billy, the United Way’s Community Wellness Manager for Ashcroft, Cache Creek, Clinton and region, says that one of her main goals is to help people who are suffering from mental health issues because of last year’s wildfires find the assistance they need.
“We have some really great mental health services in the community, but a lot of people don’t know about them,” she says, pointing out that many people think they need a doctor’s referral in order to access mental health workers at the Ashcroft Hospital.
“You can just phone up. It’s not a long, drawn-out process. But some people can’t access the service because they don’t have transportation, or they don’t want to go in there alone. And some people are afraid to reach out for help because of the stigma attached to mental health issues.”
Billy—who formerly worked for Aboriginal Skills, Employment, and Training Strategy in Ashcroft—has been in the United Way position since April 2018, and says that she immediately set about finding what mental health services were available locally and where the duplications and gaps were.
“I’m working with Interior Health, the First Nations Health Authority, the Secwepemc Health Caucus, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and the Mental Health Working Group chaired by Phil Snyman and Helen Kormendy,” she says. “We’re trying to get the community working together, to collaborate.
“Another goal is to canvass individuals, find out what their experiences are, and offer support. Lots of people are definitely suffering with mental health issues around the fire.”
Billy says that she and other mental health clinicians will be at both screenings of the Era of Megafires film at the Ashcroft Community Hall (2:30 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 14). “The community will get to see who we are, and it means there will be support in the room to help anyone dealing with triggers or stress.”
It’s one of many events that Billy will be at, in order to meet with community members and First Nations and let them know what services are available. “Smelling smoke, or seeing the sun red from smoke or fire, are common triggers. And some people have a fear of moving home. Some Ashcroft Band residents have been out of their homes for a year, and will be moving from a hotel, where there are lots of people, to a home where they might be alone.”
She hopes that people will come to recognize the mental health clinicians in the area and feel able to approach them. “Community wellness is such a huge area, and I’ve spent the first three months getting out there and finding who the frontline workers are.” She adds that as the one-year anniversary of the Elephant Hill wildfire drew closer, she saw anxiety levels rise.
“People are agitated, and have very high anxiety. Some people are suffering from survivor guilt, and some have just shut down; they don’t want to talk about it. And some people don’t want to take support. They say ‘Give it to others who have lost their homes,’ which surprised me.”
However, Billy adds that a significant number of people she meets do want to talk about their experience. “They want to talk, share their stories, and have someone listen. I think the community needs a forum where people can talk. It’s an idea that’s been brought to the table, and we’ll see if it’s doable.”
Billy is one of five United Way Community Wellness workers brought in to help areas affected by the fire; other workers are covering 100 Mile House and region, Williams Lake and region, and Quesnel and region. “The communities all have mental health working groups, and we meet and talk so we can see what’s working in other communities and what we can bring here.”
One of the things Billy and the other workers are promoting is the recently-established Talk in Tough Times program: a free, confidential service available to anyone who is struggling with mental health issues and wants to talk. Advertising for the program has recently been updated to explicitly mention the effects of last year’s fires and the anxiety many will be feeling at the one-year anniversary mark.
“We’re trying to showcase community-building and connections,” says Billy. “And we’re living in the communities, doing sustainable work. We’re here to stay.”
To contact Billy, call (250) 457-1761. To speak with someone at Talk in Tough Times, call 1-877-427-4884. To contact Mental Health Services at the Ashcroft Hospital, call (250) 453-1940. For a listing of other mental health services available throughout the region, go to the BC211 website at http://www.bc211.ca/.