SEVIER COUNTY - Emotional and psychological support is now available to wildfire victims, at no cost, and experts suggest they take advantage of the service.
Nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks: mental health experts say many wildfire survivors are still experiencing these symptoms more than two months after the November wildfires.
On the night of Monday, Nov. 28, thousands of people made narrow escapes down burning mountain roads in Sevier County, and that can be a source of post-traumatic stress.
"They faced death in many circumstances, so there will be many people that still are having emotional repercussions, post-traumatic reactions to being in such a dangerous situation," explained Dr. John Kupfner, medical director of Peninsula Outpatient Centers. "It was life-threatening. It's not a usual event. It's not expected. You have parents that were fearing for the lives of their children. These are things that are unnatural to us."
Lauren Meier and her partner Charlie Nichols know this all too well.
On the night of the fires, theirs was the lead car in a seven-vehicle caravan of family members trying to escape a burning mountain.
"We got through and then (Charlie) looked back and said, 'There's no cars behind us,' so I started calling my parents and everybody, my son. nobody was answering their phones," Meier recalled. "I finally got ahold of my dad, and my dad was just like, 'We're not going to make it. You guys should just keep going.'"
Getting emotional, Meier described encouraging her family to find another way off the mountain.
"Hearing the fear in my dad's voice, of course, was very terrifying because then, you know, my children are back there," Meier said. "It was hard."
Her family did eventually make it off the mountain, but more than two months after that terrifying night, Meier and Nichols are still suffering from their escape.
"Charlie and I both haven't been sleeping," Meier said. "It's difficult. It just makes everything harder."
Adding to that trauma is the fact the couple's three-story Gatlinburg home was reduced to rubble.
All that's left are two buckets of burned belongings sitting on the balcony of the Pigeon Forge condo the couple now rents.
"It is a constant reminder to try to keep going, remember what you had but, you know, we're trying to move forward," Meier said.
They're grateful to have found a place to live and for the financial aid they've received from the Dollywood Foundation and FEMA.
Still, it's hard to move beyond the traumatizing memories of that night.
Even the smell of bonfire smoke - once a nightly staple in their fire pit - is a trigger for stressful memories.
"I've had family members say, 'Oh, isn't it time to get over it now?' And, you know, I just think, 'No, not really,'" Meier said. "I'm not into arguing with my family or anything, but it's difficult, you know. I think, you know, if it was them, they'd feel differently."
"People might have problems with nightmares, fears, flashbacks, reliving it, especially if they're in the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge area," Dr. Kupfner said.
The best thing wildfire survivors can do, he said, is talk about what happened.
"Don't keep it bottled up because you don't have to suffer. You went through something life-threatening and tragic," he explained. "Anybody that's suffering, I want them to be able to talk about it."
He suggests talking to a family member, pastor, primary care doctor or mental health professional.
"The earlier you address it, the easier it is to make the symptoms go away long-term so that you can return to working and functioning and living a normal life again," he said. "Don't be embarrassed of it. It doesn't make anybody shy or weak. I mean, this was a life-threatening situation."
Meier and Nichols signed up for mental health counseling offered in the wake of the wildfires and they encourage other survivors to do so as well.
"We should not avoid the topic. Avoiding the topic is what makes people suffer for longer," Kupfner said. "We have to work through this and people need to know that they're supported and that it could've happened to any of us. It wasn't anybody's fault, you know. I mean, people were just living their lives and all-of-a-sudden, their life was put in danger. I mean, that is a really important event."
If, after six months, a wildfire survivor continues to experience detrimental stress reactions - the kind that keep them from going to work or cause panic attacks, for example - Kupfner said that person may have post-traumatic stress disorder and should see a mental health professional.
"PTSD or traumatic reactions are stored in a different part of your brain," he explained. "There's an emotional part of your brain called the amygdala and it's very strong and your memories last very long. That's like anything bad that happened to you in your childhood, you'll have an emotional feeling when you think back to it, versus, like, when you learned algebra, which is a different part of the brain."
He said he has counseled a number of wildfire survivors, who are suffering from post-traumatic stress. First responders are also susceptible to PTSD, he said.
If you're having trouble, you're not alone, and help is available.
Crisis counseling is available through the Tennessee Recovery Project at 865-255-6716. This is available through March 13.
For a list of resources, disaster survivors can call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990 or the Mobile Crisis Unit at 865-539-2409.
Meier and Nichols also are operating a distribution center for wildfire victims, which is open most mornings. It's at 805 East Parkway in Gatlinburg and is in honor of Nichols' son Asher, who died in 2015 at 3 years old. The couple started an organization called Asher's Army.
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