Mental health experts, school district respond to shooting tragedy

Community leaders work to support Douglas County after Boulder attack

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/23/21

Waves of shock and grief rippled through Colorado on March 22 as a mass shooting left 10 people dead, including Boulder police officer Eric Talley. The incident unfolded less than one week after …

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Mental health experts, school district respond to shooting tragedy

Community leaders work to support Douglas County after Boulder attack

Posted

Waves of shock and grief rippled through Colorado on March 22 as a mass shooting left 10 people dead, including Boulder police officer Eric Talley. The incident unfolded less than one week after another mass shooting killed eight in Georgia.

With the tragedies came an abundance of community conversations, social media posts, news coverage and widespread imagery of the scenes.

When these incidents occur, it can send a community already traumatized by similar events reeling, mental health and Douglas County School District leaders said as they worked to provide mental health resources to the community.

Jason Captain, the clinical director of counseling services for AllHealth Network, said that after the Boulder shootings, the agency saw the biggest request for support from the STEM School Highlands Ranch community.

A 2019 shooting at the Highlands Ranch school left senior Kendrick Castillo dead and eight more students injured.

Captain also provided on-site support to people affected by the shooting death of Deputy Zackari Parrish in 2017, where four other officers were injured in what Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock called an “ambush” on law enforcement.

“It really brings up a lot of lingering trauma, even if the person has gone and gotten formal treatment,” Captain said. “It usually can trigger some of that emotional turmoil that they experienced the day of the event.”

Supporting the community

In the aftermath of the Boulder tragedy, a center dedicated to supporting victims of the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting will open its doors for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic, Captain said.

The STEM Center for Strength, located directly across the street from STEM School, has offered mental health services virtually during the pandemic but is shifting gears to provide more support following the March 22 shooting.

People can drop in for one-on-one conversations with a mental health professional, Captain said, and AllHealth is also looking into offering socially distanced small groups at the center.

Anyone affected by the STEM tragedy — staff, students, alumni and community members — can use the center's services. AllHealth also has an on-site counselor embedded at STEM to work directly with students.

STEM School Executive Director Penny Eucker was not immediately available for comment. A spokeswoman provided a letter sent to the school community on March 22 expressing condolences for those affected by the shooting in Boulder and pointing people to resources.

Those included the Colorado Crisis Services line, the STEM Center for Strength and various support groups.

“We understand that situations like this can bring back memories that can be difficult for our community,” the letter said.

The school said its recovery coordinator is available to assist students, staff and families and urged support for “several of our STEM alumni” who attend school in Boulder.

“In difficult times like these, we want to remind our entire community to be there for one another,” the letter said.

Parents supporting children

The Douglas County School District's Director of Mental Health Stephanie Crawford-Goetz said it is important for parents to monitor their children's reaction to traumatic events.

“The number one tip for parents is to reassure their children that they are safe, and they are supported,” she said. “Let them know that schools are safe, their home is safe, and all the adults are there to support them.”

Watch for significant changes in a child's mood or behavior, she said, such as whether they are not sleeping, any more or less active than usual, losing interest in routine activities, or struggling to concentrate at school.

How a parent discusses violence and traumatic events with children will differ by the student's age, she said. For younger children, use language they can understand. Be prepared for middle and high school students to have more questions.

“(Secondary students) may have more exposure than parents even know, talking with their friends and media and social media,” she said, telling parents to ask their older children, “What do you know, what are you thinking, what can we do together so that you feel safe?”

School counselors, psychologists and social workers are available to assist students and parents navigate these conversations, she said. Any student can speak with a school counselor. If a parent does notice signs their student is not coping well, counselors can provide resources and guidance.

For anyone who has been victimized by gun violence, Captain and Crawford-Goetz advised people to limit their exposure to information about new or recent shootings. Being informed is good but not if someone consumes so much information they grow overwhelmed, Crawford-Goetz said.

For people with children, don't leave the news on 24/7, Captain said.

“It can really cause some symptoms of vicarious trauma. Kids might have some trouble sleeping or feel unsafe,” he said.

'Difficult to process'

The tragedy in Boulder comes after a year of trauma, from the ongoing pandemic to protests to the mass shooting in Georgia.

Douglas County School District interim Superintendent Corey Wise sent a letter to the community on March 23 regarding both the Boulder and Georgia incidents, saying “our hearts are broken” for victims and their loved ones.

“As adults it's difficult to process this senseless violence, which makes it even harder to try to explain it to our children and grandchildren,” Wise wrote.

The interim superintendent lamented the slayings of people going about their routine daily lives and said while a motive for the Boulder attack remains unclear, “no reason is excusable.”

Wise also said the murders in Georgia, where six of the eight victims were Asian American women, “appeared to be racially motivated.”

“It needs to stop! We must address issues of hate, racism, xenophobia and violence in our country,” Wise said.

Crawford-Goetz said near or far, mass shootings like those in Boulder and Georgia impact people's mental health, and that “everyone is affected by this pandemic.”

“Where we might have started out pretty low in our stress level, we are all probably a little higher on that scale,” she said.

She urged empathy and understanding for one another in the community.

Captain said AllHealth saw “an unprecedented need for mental health treatment” this past year. During traumatic times, a person's best resources are often their “natural support network” like friends and family, he said.

Although COVID makes gathering difficult, Captain said people should talk about how these events affect them and how they are feeling.

“I think what we look at is if their symptoms of anxiety or depression are starting to impact their day-to-day life,” he said. “That's often when I would say that someone should get some professional support.”

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