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Calif. firefighters share struggles in mental health documentary

Film featuring Sutter County firefighters highlights the importance of opening up, empathy and seeking help

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By Angela Guglielmino
Appeal-Democrat

SUTTER COUNTY, Calif. — “When I started we had a kind of a tradition that you sent the new guy in, or new girl in, to do all the dirty work, or all the unfavorable work, so to speak,” Brian Thompson with the Sutter County Fire Department says in a scene from the new documentary “Yes, There is Hope” directed by Dean Tokuno of Yuba City. “You didn’t get to talk about it back then and that’s definitely had a toll on me. When you go home to your family and you’re not supposed to talk about it, I think what we’re trying to accomplish here is helping because we’re getting it out there. There seems to be a huge push in mental health and taking care of people. I wish this was available to me when I started. I started when I was 20. I’ve seen a lot.”

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In the coming days, the community will have the opportunity to view a free showing of “Yes, There is Hope,” a documentary produced by Sutter-Yuba Behavioral Health about mental health awareness.

Featuring several local voices, the film delves into the serious and pressing topic of mental health. Tokuno said this might be the most important project he has worked on.

“I would have to say that the project that I am most proud of to date, might very well be this,” Tokuno said. “It’s definitely not the biggest — it’s probably about the smallest — but to me emotionally, it’s probably the most important.”

In the documentary, Yuba -Sutter community members are featured, offering an impactful and intimate perspective for area residents.

“There’s a lot of heart here. This is not a big budget film. We couldn’t throw all of our resources into it. It’s a very small film, very small. But considering as small as this little film is, it has its own power,” Tokuno said.

He said it is important that people have an open dialogue with others about their struggles with mental health. Tokuno said that everyone has been touched by emotional conflict.

“Share (your struggles) with someone who has empathy, who might have an idea of what type of resources they can reach out to,” Tokuno said.

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Tokuno said it was initially hard to get sources for the documentary because of the stigma associated with mental health issues.

“You’d be surprised at how many doors closed immediately when people were asked to discuss anything having to do with mental health, anything having to do with emotional crisis,” Tokuno said.

Director of Sutter Yuba Behavioral Health Services Rick Bingham said that the inspiration for the project was to significantly reduce stigma in the local area so that people will seek the help that they need.

“We’ve seen an increase in the prevalence of mental health issues, especially since COVID, and especially in our youth,” Bingham said in an email.

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Gina Ehlert , a national trainer for the National Council for Mental Wellbeing which oversees Mental Health First Aid, is also featured in the documentary along with Bingham and was able to see the film early. According to its website, Mental Health First Aid is a “skills-based training course that teaches participants about mental health and substance-use issues.”

Ehlert said that with the documentary it was meaningful to see people impacted by what the Mental Health First Aid program is trying to do.

“Mental Health First Aid is a one-day training where people get to learn the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges. They’re encouraged to approach people when they notice those signs and symptoms, listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance, give information, and encourage people to get appropriate professional help or other support in their lives,” Ehlert said.

Sutter County Fire Chief John Shalowitz , who is featured in “Yes, There is Hope,” said first responders cope with a tremendous amount of mental health issues as part of their day-to-day work.

“Over the years, I’ve known people, I’ve had close friends that have committed suicide. First responders who have let the situation get too in-depth, I would say, and didn’t get the help that they needed,” Shalowitz says in the documentary. “Sometimes in our job we just need to talk it out, we see a lot of things in this profession that most people will never see in their lives.”

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The first premiere of “Yes, There is Hope” will be at the Lee Burrows Center for the Arts in Marysville at 6 p.m. on Thursday . The second showing will be at the Sutter Theater Center for the Arts in Yuba City at 3 p.m. on April 13 . The Rotary Club of Marysville is hosting the events, and attendees can expect refreshments and a panel discussion after the movie. Tickets can be reserved through Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/o/sutter-yuba-behavioral-health-67787724563.

“I’d say the biggest thing up until now has always just been talking to your crew. I’ve always kind of noticed when I’m getting to that point,” Thompson says in the film. “I’ve had it described to me once ... everybody has a cup or container. ... If that’s representing your mental health — yours might be bigger than mine, mine might be bigger than yours — and I’ve always kind of known when mine’s about ready to overfill and knowing I probably need to get in to talk to somebody and getting that back under a manageable level. ... That’s probably not the best way to go about it, but it’s helped me. ... You absolutely do not take that home.

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“They ask and you go, you don’t want to know. I was working a lot of overtime last year and I was trying to take care of myself and I didn’t recognize the struggles that my wife was having. And I carry a lot of guilt with that because I should have been there for her — family first, you know. I’m busy trying to deal with my demons and my stuff here at work and I think our families get pushed to the wayside a lot of times. If we’re really going to go forward with this mental health push, we need to encompass every part of it, not just us on the job, but our families and people that are associated with us. I think they often get left in the background.”

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