The destruction of the Marshall Fire triggered an outpouring of generosity. The more than $43 million raised by the Community Foundation Boulder County since the December 2021 wildfire likely set a record for local disaster philanthropy in the county.
Much of the philanthropic money is helping homeowners rebuild physically the houses that were razed by flames. But some of the money was dedicated to helping survivors recover mentally, too, from the trauma of the fire amid compounding crises.
Despite the benefits the funding has brought, the many months since the fire have revealed the significant mental health needs of the community and the resource limitations in addressing them.
“We were already a community that was in crisis and traumatized from a number of different events,” Tatiana Hernandez, the foundation’s CEO, said in an interview. “So COVID was certainly an overlay to everything. The King Soopers shooting, I think, really shook people’s sense of safety across the county. And then came the Marshall fire.”
In February 2022, the Community Foundation disbursed $250,000 to Jewish Family Service of Colorado, a nonprofit human services organization, to provide free counseling to the thousands of people whose lives were upended by the Marshall Fire. In total, the foundation has given $500,000 to JFS.
As of December 2022, the JFS portal — first set up to help meet pandemic demand and expanded after the fire — had 258 providers in its system. Providers voluntarily signed up for the portal and had to agree to take on at least two Marshall fire clients. Many therapists didn’t sign up, citing already-long waiting lists as demand for their services exploded in recent years due to the pandemic and the adolescent mental health “national emergency,” among other factors.
More than 850 people are currently registered clients in the system. To be eligible for services, the person’s home or business had to have been damaged or destroyed by the fire, or they were evacuated. First responders are also eligible. Not all providers in the portal and registered clients have given or received therapy sessions. According to JFS, about 680 people are actively receiving therapy.
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For some who are not seeing a therapist, it’s not because they don’t want to, but because the program is bumping against a problem that is nationwide: The number of people in need of mental health services has risen while providers remain in short supply.
In Boulder, the problem is even bigger.
“Unfortunately in Boulder County, there aren’t enough clinicians who are on insurance panels,” said Jennifer Banyan, vice president of programs at the Community Foundation. “And that’s a structural issue and a systems issue.”
Demand spiked after first anniversary of the fire
The one-year anniversary of the Marshall fire spurred a surge of people looking for mental health resources, stretching the capacity of the program.
“I got a whole new batch of clients that had not come forward to ask for services during the whole first year,” said Deb Berghuis, a Boulder therapist in the portal. “Every single client that I’ve picked up in the last couple months has been triggered by just the enormity of what actually happened. And they just dealt with it the whole time. But then this anniversary was just huge for them.”
Berghuis has taken on seven Marshall fire clients through the JFS portal. But finding a therapist is more complicated than just picking a name.
Kendra Schreck’s family was displaced from their smoke-damaged home for four months. She reached out to JFS and got a copy of the provider list. It took a few tries — the first two therapists she reached out to were booked or had hours that didn’t work for her schedule. Then, on the third try, she found someone who helped her process the trauma she has endured, she said.
“Knowing that I had those 10 sessions and didn’t have to pay for them in a time when finances were unsure meant a lot to me,” Schreck said. “Otherwise, taking care of my own mental health would’ve been last on the list.”
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Other people weren’t so lucky. One woman who lost her home in the fire and asked not to be identified to protect her family’s privacy, wanted to find a therapist for her daughter, for herself, and a couples therapist for her and her husband.
“My daughter was quite traumatized. And so the Jewish Family Services had reached out to us about their therapy services,” she said. “We thought it was a fabulous idea, but it just turned out to be quite complicated to get a child therapist.”
They found a therapist they loved for her daughter, but the therapist had limited availability — she was only able and willing to add the woman’s daughter to her caseload. (The portal requires therapists to take on at least two Marshall fire clients.)
The woman ran into the same issue for herself. She had been seeing a therapist before the fire, but that therapist wasn’t able to take on Marshall fire clients so she couldn’t join the portal. In the end, her therapist donated 10 sessions. (The JFS-Community Foundation program “is not intended for clients already working with an existing therapist,” according to its website.)
The woman and her husband connected with at least three therapists through the portal but couldn’t find someone who fit their availability or wasn’t already booked. They ended up joining a couples support group outside the JFS program.
“It would’ve been so much better and more helpful if we were able to just ease that financial burden, because it was just such a dark period for our family and for our community,” she said. “It’s something that we’re willing to pay for because it’s worth it for our family. But we know that [free] resource is there, it just seems so out of reach.”
JFS and the Community Foundation have acknowledged the shortage of therapists and they’ve tried to address issues along the way, like working directly with patients to help them find a therapist who fits their needs. Meanwhile, if someone needs more than 10 sessions, they can reach out to JFS and ask for more.
“Is 10 sessions enough?’ is an open question,” Hernandez said. “I don’t ever think there’s enough mental health support generally in the world.”
To ensure therapists on the portal came from diverse backgrounds, JFS had to look outside of Boulder County. Counseling sessions can be done virtually.
“It was very hard to find enough Boulder County therapists,” said Linda Foster, president and CEO of JFS.
The funding from the Community Foundation will end in July 2023. To continue to serve Boulder County residents, JFS is trying to hire full-time in-house therapists, made possible by a $250,000 Red Cross grant.
“Participants that have utilized the 10 sessions will be able to see a JFS therapist” with insurance, or under a sliding-fee schedule or for free, a JFS spokesperson said. JFS wants to have three full-time therapists, but currently only has two part-time therapists and a clinical supervisor.
“There’s just not a lot of therapists out there that are necessarily looking for jobs,” Foster said. “So many are in private practice, and private practice is probably more lucrative. We are struggling.”
Disaster mental health services often fall short
Providing mental health resources after a disaster isn’t uncommon for philanthropic organizations and federal and local governments.
For example, the federal SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, awards grants to community organizations after disaster strikes and has a disaster distress helpline for people to call or text anytime of day or night. SAMHSA’s Disaster Technical Assistance Center helps states, territories and tribes deliver an effective behavioral health response to disasters.
At the state level, the Colorado Department of Human Resources coordinated with various state and local agencies and community organizations to provide mental health services immediately after the Marshall fire, which it has done after other disasters as well.
The problem is that services typically only last one year — the JFS-Community Foundation program will last somewhat longer — and there isn’t always enough money provided by the government agencies to meet the need.
Overall, federal support has proven, disaster after disaster, to be inadequate. Funding is not equitably distributed. Homes are often not rebuilt due to underinsurance, high housing costs, and fears of rebuilding in an area that has already been struck by a climate disaster, spawning displacement and retraumatization. Long-term recovery after an urban fire like the Marshall fire, including mental counseling, takes a lot of money and time.
“Federal agencies are kind of running thin on staff because there’s a whole lot of disasters going on right now and they’re deployed across the country,” said Sally Ray, director of domestic funds for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “They are not the most efficient and effective at things. And some people assume, ‘Oh, well, my house burned down in a fire, but FEMA’s going to give me money, and I’m going to recover fully with whatever they provide.’ And that just is not the case. It never has been the case. It’s not the case anywhere at any time for any disaster.”
When it comes to mental health, it’s often community organizations that are best set up to deploy funds and programs relatively quickly through already established networks, she and others said.
“We can figure out where the gaps are and where we can respond to fill those gaps using our strengths and obviously being mission aligned,” Foster of JFS said. The fact that it already had a portal up and running for the pandemic — with about 50 providers — was a leg up.
“It was something that I thought very quickly we could scale,” Banyan said. “I also know that we have a very generous community that will step up. And we saw it with the floods (in 2013), the fire, the shooting — where practitioners were really willing to say, ‘OK, what can I do?’”
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She sent emails to every provider, network and group she could think of to put out the call for practitioners from across the state to join the portal and take on as many clients as they could. She turned to the Community Foundation for more funding. In a matter of weeks after the fire, the organizations were able to scale the program and start offering services.
Ray, from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, said she was impressed when she visited Boulder last fall with how money for mental health and other services was “out the door quickly,” and the need for long-term recovery was recognized, too.
“Seeing where they were in recovery was really quite a bit ahead of other communities where I’ve been,” Ray said.
Ongoing mental health needs
The Community Foundation is looking to future fundraising to continue to meet the needs of the community. Meanwhile, its CEO, Hernandez, is thinking about what it means for Boulder residents to feel safe, capturing the larger, more amorphous feeling that many have been experiencing.
“It’s all of these adjustments of how does one claim safety, how does one create safety for themselves that are really, I think, hard to navigate in a world that feels so unsafe,” she said. “That’s so unpredictable.”
Foster expects fire survivors will continue to need mental health services years from now. After the Red Cross grant ends in October 2023, she said JFS plans to continue to fund mental health counseling through its full-time providers. Patients will have to use their insurance or pay out of pocket to access those therapists, unless they have no insurance or are undocumented.
“I think in two years we’ll still be seeing people struggling and who will need help with financial assistance, but also with mental health.”
Freelance journalist Claire Cleveland wrote this story for the Boulder Reporting Lab, a nonprofit newsroom serving Boulder County. It was first published on April 13, 2023. Sign up for the Boulder Reporting Lab newsletter here.