10 YEARS: Mental health services continue for theater shooting victims

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In this April 22, 2015 photo, Dr. Kirsten Anderson, the Disaster Coordinator with Aurora Mental Health Center, poses for a photo inside the Aurora Strong Resilience Center, a free counseling center opened in 2013 for local residents who have been affected by trauma, in Aurora. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In the immediate aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, the Aurora Mental Health Center’s board of directors passed a resolution stipulating that it would not charge any out-of-pocket fees to anyone who had been impacted by the shooting.

The need for services was high but the commitment was upheld, officials said.

Ten years later, that guarantee is still being honored. AMHC continues to treat survivors from that night, a testament to the long tail of trauma that gun violence leaves in its wake.

At press time, the number of patients and estimated cost to the mental health center was unclear.

Leaders in Aurora drew on previous experiences of crisis events to respond to the shooting, and in turn have passed on the lessons they learned to other communities in the state and across the nation. But the prevalence of mass shootings in the decade since is discouraging.

At the time of the Aurora theater shooting, “we were already living in a world where these shootings were more commonplace than anyone should find acceptable and nothing at all has changed to make us any safer,” said Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado.

Atchity credited Colorado’s extreme risk protection order (ERPO) law, which went into effect in 2020, as the one major piece of legislation passed after the shooting that has made a meaningful impact in gun deaths. The organization lobbied heavily for the law while it was going through the legislature, which it framed as a suicide prevention measure due to Colorado’s high rate of gun suicides. 

However, Atchity said the state has not done enough to publicize the law since it was passed. He remembers being in New York City shortly after 9/11, where the subway cars were plastered with “if you see something, say something” posters. He wishes there had been a campaign on a similar scale to promote ERPOs.

“I don’t think the state has ever done a very good job of making people aware of this single tool we have to prevent these kinds of things, and I think that’s regrettable,” he said.

But in the early hours of the morning following the Aurora shooting, legislation wasn’t yet on anyone’s radar. Then Aurora Public Schools superintendent John Barry found out about the shooting at 1:15 a.m. when his chief operating officer called to give him the news. Barry is an Air Force veteran who was in the Pentagon on 9/11, but it was Columbine that he said prepared him most for the shooting. After the 1999 shooting, the district put together an incident response team, which enabled it to jump into action immediately after the shooting and coordinate with first responders.

Then-recent Gateway High School graduate A.J. Boik was one of the people killed in the attack, and many APS students were in the theater, including the Gateway football team which had gone out to celebrate. Paris Elementary School students and their families were further traumatized by the evacuation of the area around the perpetrator’s apartment building, which the shooter had rigged with explosives.

With just two weeks between the shooting and the district’s first day of school, Barry and his leadership team decided to put a priority on making sure the school had additional mental health resources and other supports for students throughout the ensuing school year. 

A case study drafted by the Harvard Kennedy School Program on Crisis Leadership analyzing APS’ reaction to the shooting detailed how some people in the district were skeptical of Barry’s decision, worrying that paying too much attention to the incident would backfire. But as the school year went on, that attitude faded.

“I used to tell people, we are not first responders,” Barry told The Sentinel. “But we are second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, whatever responders and we need to be able to deal with this thing as it goes forward.”

The district worked with AMHC to ensure that there were extra counselors in every school, and national experts helped craft age-appropriate ways for teachers to discuss the shooting with students on the first day back. Aurora pastor Reid Hettich helped organize a group of religious leaders that met to discuss how the faith community could help students.

Kirsten Anderson, AMHC’s chief clinical officer, said that students had much of the same reactions as older people to the shooting but were more at the mercy of their physical environment. Schools can be loud, crowded places with a lot of triggers, and truancy was one of the responses that some students had in the aftermath.

For people of all ages, the shooting affected their sense of safety. The theater shooting was one of the first high-profile attacks in a place where people went for entertainment — attacks at a gay nighclub, a music festival and a country-western bar were yet to happen. Over and over again, Anderson said mental health providers encountered people struggling with how to restore their sense of safety, which is an important step in recovering from trauma.

“There was a sense of, where in the community can I be safe if not a movie theater?” she said. The smell of popcorn, the classic movie theater treat, turned into a trigger for some survivors.

APS’ sense of security was rattled again when, six months after the shooting, 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Some teachers struggled with how to respond.

“I didn’t know how to deal with this because I’m not going to lie to the kids and say that won’t happen because I can’t say that with conviction,” Paris Elementary fourth grade teacher Paula Hedin said in an interview for the Harvard case study.

Barry and other members of APS’ leadership team, along with Aurora first responders, ended up speaking to people in Newtown about what they had been through. AMHC has been consulted in the response to the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, the Boston Marathon Bombings and the STEM and Arapahoe high school shootings. Being able to pass on advice to other members of “the club no one wants to join” is bittersweet.

“It’s very important that communities support each other because you do learn a lot of lessons,” Anderson said.

Anderson testified to the immense strength of survivors but said that the prevalence of mass shootings in the years since continues to be “an enormous trigger” for many. It’s pretty reliable that every time a shooting reaches the news, AMHC will see an uptick in people reaching out for support.

“Back then the hope was certainly that this horrible thing happened and it impacted so many lives and we would just hope that would lead to some substantial change so that that would not be continuing to happen,” Anderson said. “And unfortunately it seems to be happening more frequently than it was back in 2012.”


 

 

 

 

 

 

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