Mental health support at crucial point for fire survivors on Maui

Written by on May 16, 2024

ABC News

(MAUI, Hawaii) — For the thousands of people who survived the Maui fires last August, the trauma of what they lived through still lingers.

Lahaina painter Kirk Boes and his wife Laura have lived on Lahaina together for more than 40 years. They evacuated on August 8, only to return three days later. They were overwhelmed with grief at the destruction left behind.

“There’s the initial disbelief, just denial,” Boes told ABC News. “I wasn’t even registering what I was seeing. Then it hit me. What really did happen.”

Nearly half of the victims in the Lahaina fire died in Boes’ neighborhood, known as Kuhua Camp. Many of those victims were found on Boes’ dead-end street.

“We lost 19 of our neighbors just in this five house radius right here. People that I’ve been waving to hello to for a decade,” Boes said, pointing to neighboring homes.

Kirk said he became separated from his wife on August 8, as he ran ahead of their car to find a safe evacuation route. He said they eventually found each other near the Banyan Tree.

“When you go through something this heavy, it brings you together, but it’s also like your nerves are raw,” he said.

Laura Boes lost many animals in the fire. “She cried every night, sometimes twice a day… for six months,” Boes said about his wife. For months Kirk suffered from flashbacks and sleepless nights. Eventually the couple sought therapy from a close friend to regain a state of health or well being, or olakino in the Hawaiian language.

The cornerstone of healing for the Boes family is rooted in faith. Kirk was once angry at officials for not sounding the sirens and possibly preventing loss of life. He said he later found a piece of Scripture about forgiveness in the debris of his home.

“And wow, it’s like a switch went on in my life that day, and I began to pray for all those people that I was really angry with,” Boes said. “I want them to know that I forgive them, right? Because when I forgave them, I was able to move into healing.”

The pain of losing someone deepens with distance for Kathleen Hennricks, who lives in Oregon. Her sister Rebecca “Becky” Ann Rans died in the fire with her partner Doug Gloege, a few blocks from the Boes’ home. Rans, 57, was a mother of three boys.

“My sister was a, I always call her a free spirit, because she was somebody that went her own path,” Hennricks told ABC. “I know that she absolutely was absolutely the best mother to her boys that she knew how to be and was just such a caring and giving person.”

Hennricks said she has found comfort leaning on people who have also suffered in the tragedy.

“There are so many other people that have been affected by this tragedy, and there is most definitely comfort. And I know that I have found a huge comfort with the people that love my sister. And I think that that does kind of help fill that void just a little bit, is talking to the people that knew her and loved her and hearing stories that I had never heard before. It was like her being here at times.”

Kathleen Hennricks said she has also coped with the loss through art therapy.

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“One of the things that I do if I’m having a rough day is I do watercolor painting. I really enjoy just getting into my office and just painting… and I know that that’s something that she enjoyed as well,” Hennricks said. “It gives me that ability to connect with her, fill that void a little bit.”

Rans’ family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the state, the county of Maui, Hawaiian Electric, and the largest private landholder in Hawaii. They claim overgrown vegetation on unkept land, aging electrical infrastructure, and the county’s lack of emergency preparation contributed to Rans’ death. Boes has also filed a lawsuit.

In statements to ABC News, both the county of Maui and the Hawaii State Attorney General office told ABC News they do not comment on pending litigation, and said the ATF and Maui Fire and Public Safety Department are “conducting an investigation into the cause.”

Hawaiian Electric declined to comment on the lawsuit, but in an August statement wrote the morning fire appeared to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds, and was later declared “extinguished” by Maui County Fire Department. The statement claims a second fire in the afternoon began in the same area, after their power lines had been de-energized for more than six hours, and its cause has not been determined. Hennricks also submitted written testimony to Congress.

“Our quest for justice has been, on top of the grief. I think the grief is what drives the quest for justice,” Hennricks said. “It’s the fact that we lost her is obviously detrimental. The after effects, the knowing that this could have been prevented, the knowing how many people were affected during this event, has just been catastrophic. It’s hard enough to grieve over somebody that you’ve lost, but to know that so many people that were affected continue to be affected, I think has been probably one of the most devastating things of all. And we want answers,” she said.

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The fires on Maui not only left behind a trail of physical destruction, but an invisible one, too.

With suicide rates rising nearly 16% among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders from 2021-2022, mental health continues to be a big concern on Maui, especially since all but one full-service medical facility in Lahaina was destroyed.

And the housing shortage and lack of safe spaces for those living with mental health issues has exacerbated the problem on Maui, according to Nicole Hokoana, CEO of Maui Behavioral Health Resources. MBHR operates 3 nonprofits that offer mental health services and substance use treatment across the island.

“The people that we see and have been working with have already been living with, right living with these types of struggles, so the fires really just made everything worse,” she said. “It’s really hard to be well on Maui right now,” said Hokoana.

Hawaii State House Representative Elle Cochran, who represents West Maui, agreed.

“Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? Where is the ray of hope? I mean, where’s the help? And people are frustrated and they feel like, there’s a lot of people just made it through COVID. They just finally got back on their feet, they finally got to rebuild their lives, businesses, what have you, and now this happens.”

Hawaii was awarded $17 million in federal funding for mental health support shortly after the August fires. And since July 2022, Hawaii has operated the nation’s first state legislated Office of Wellness and Resilience; its aim is to make Hawaii a trauma-informed state and break down barriers that impact health. OWR offers mental health programs at the resorts where displaced victims are sheltered including music therapy.

Cochran says community outreach is crucial, including “to just get out and be boots on the ground literally and walk the beaches, go to the parks, go to the tent cities and what have you, to the hotels.”

David “Kawika” Mattos’ group, Maui Family Support Services Kāne Connections, regularly line the streets of Maui and wave signs to encourage residents to talk about mental health and prevent suicide. Mattos also hosts a men’s group at a resort shelter to help men process their trauma, but also move forward and to support each other and continue to grow as men and fathers.

Cochran said, “I heard from quite a few males that, ‘it’s hard,’ but yet no one looks at them as they should having these types of feelings. And then looking at parents having to be strong and stand up and not fight from breaking down in front of their children, that was also a really huge challenge.”

Another outreach team caring for the Maui community is the Pūlama nā ‘Ohana Team.

“When we were so fortunate as to get some extra funding, because this is outside of what we typically do, what we wanted to do was recruit a team of people that are of Lahaina, of Maui,” Hokoana said. “Already connected, already serving, people that are trustworthy in the community.”

Su-Lynn Pohai Kaihewalu, a care coordinator on the team, said that trust is everything, and often it can begin with supplying food or water. “We gotta remember what the common goal is and it’s to supply our people with their needs. Get stability first, and then they can work on their mental health,” she said.

Adri Haia is also a care coordinator on the team, and leads a women’s circle, or wahine circle. She says there is a stigma around getting mental health on Maui. “We’ve been taught to hold it in, be strong, figure it out, and when you really need help, and because you’ve built that armor up, it’s so hard to receive,” Haia said. “It’s so hard to ask for help.”

With limited resources, mental health experts on Maui are trying to meet people where they are and tailor treatments.

“Not only are we a very multicultural, multilingual community, but I think we’ve learned from disasters in other communities, that people need different resources. We don’t all heal in the same way. And indigenous healing was often communal healing,” Hokoana said. “It’s really important to be open-minded and to be person-centered or community-centered, and listen to the people who have been most impacted, and try to deliver a wide range of services.”

One of the services offered on Maui is equine therapy. Every Wednesday Ronda Pali receives a ride from a local transportation company, to travel two hours away from Lahaina, and receive trauma informed care. She is in her tenth session, trying to cope with the trauma of losing her home in the fire, in addition to heart issues.

“The thought of the rebuild of Lahaina is overwhelming. It’s definitely a source of strain and worry and fear,” Pali said. “Coming here is helping me keep things in perspective and it’s giving me the sense that I am being cared for. My needs are met 100%. I am loved, I have purpose and I feel grounded.”

Spirit Horse Ranch has held more than 950 sessions for survivors looking to heal and recover. Ronda’s individualized therapy includes a self-regulation breathing technique, and deep connection work with her horse Beauty.

“Sometimes she’ll turn around and put her face right in my face,” Pali said. “It brings me so much joy when she acknowledges me.”

“We don’t get that nurturing that we need for love. So the horses provide this connection through working with them over time, to reconnect to the person’s self and then to another, which is the horse. And then also detach. How many times do we hold onto things that are not healthy? Relationships, jobs, places? So that’s a big part of what we do,” DePonte said.

They also offer equine-assisted learning activities.

“We have about 20 different activities that we use in different various forms with the horses to unearth the trauma, heal it in real time with the horse as their partner,” DePonte said. “They love to help nudge the client, nurture the client, hold the client accountable. They’ll stomp their foot and say, “You’re not telling the truth.” And spur them on a little bit. They wind them down, they build them up. It’s incredible.”

Pali is also trying an alternative therapy technique called brainspotting.

“We have seen a lot of pain and confusion and loss. So brainspotting helps go through the ocular nerves into an inner resource part of the brain. It’s called the reptilian part of the brain, where our memories are stored, our trauma’s stored. And using various different techniques, a pointer or gaze spotting to direct and find an activation point, we can lock into very deep trauma that might be creating the reaction today, that fight, flight, or freeze. So if we unlock that, that trigger is no longer apparent, it’s no longer holding them hostage,” DePonte said.

Pali said she can feel a difference.

“I feel loads of tension coming out of me every time I come here,” she said.

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