10 YEARS: Mental health services continue for victims of theater shootings

In this April 22, 2015 photo, Dr. Kirsten Anderson, disaster coordinator at 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 a trauma, in Aurore. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

IImmediately after the Aurora Theater shooting in 2012, the Aurora Mental Health Center Board of Directors passed a resolution stating that it would not charge any disbursements to anyone affected by the shooting.

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

Ten years later, this guarantee is still honored. AMHC continues to treat survivors of that night, testifying to the long trail of trauma that gun violence leaves in its wake.

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

Aurora leaders drew on past experiences of crisis events to respond to the shooting and in turn passed on the lessons they learned to other communities across the state and nation. But the prevalence of mass shootings in the decade that followed is disheartening.

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

Atchity credited Colorado’s Extreme Risk Protection Order Act (ERPO), which took effect in 2020, as the only major piece of legislation passed after the shooting that had a significant impact on gun deaths. fire. The organization lobbied for the law to be passed by the legislature, which it presented as a suicide prevention measure due to the high rate of firearm suicides in Colorado.

However, Atchity said the state hasn’t done enough to publicize the law since it was passed. He remembers being in New York shortly after 9/11, where subway cars were covered with “if you see something, say something” posters. He wished there had been such a massive campaign to promote ERPOs.

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

But in the early morning hours after the Aurora shooting, the legislation was still not 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 with the news. Barry is an Air Force veteran who was at the Pentagon on 9/11, but it was Columbine who he says prepared him best for the shooting. After the 1999 shooting, the district assembled an Incident Response Team, which enabled it to spring into action immediately after the shooting and coordinate with first responders.

AJ Boik, then a recent Gateway High School graduate, was one of those killed in the attack, and many APS students were in the theater, including the Gateway football team who came out to celebrate . Paris primary school students and their families were further traumatized by the evacuation of the area around the attacker’s building, which the shooter had trapped with explosives.

With just two weeks between filming and the district’s first day of school, Barry and his leadership team decided to prioritize ensuring the school had additional mental health resources and other supports to students throughout the following school year.

A case study written 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, fearing that too much attention to the incident would turns against him. But as the school year progressed, that attitude faded.

“I used to tell people we’re not first responders,” Barry told The Sentinel. “But we’re second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, whoever comes in and we have to be able to handle this thing as we go along.”

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

Kirsten Anderson, clinical director of the AMHC, said the students had much the same reactions to the shooting as the elderly, but were more at the mercy of their physical surroundings. Schools can be noisy, crowded places with many triggers, and truancy was one of the responses some students had afterward.

For people of all ages, the shooting affected their sense of safety. The shooting at the theater was one of the first high-profile attacks in a place where people were going to be entertained – attacks at a gay nightclub, a music festival and a country-western bar had yet to take place . Time and time again, Anderson said mental health providers encounter people struggling to regain their sense of safety, which is an important step in recovering from trauma.

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

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

“I didn’t know how to handle it because I’m not going to lie to the kids and say it’s not going to happen because I can’t say it with conviction,” said Paula Hedin, a fourth-grade teacher in Paris. Harvard case study interview.

Barry and other members of the APS leadership team, along with Aurora first responders, ended up talking to the people of Newtown about what they had been through. AMHC was consulted in the response to the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings, the Boston Marathon bombings, and the STEM and Arapahoe high school shootings. Being able to give 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 learn a lot of lessons,” Anderson said.

Anderson testified to the immense strength of the survivors, but said the prevalence of mass shootings in the years since continues to be “a huge trigger” for many. It’s pretty reliable that every time a shooting makes the news, the AMHC will see an increase in the number of people asking for help.

“At the time the hope was certainly that this horrible thing happened and impacted so many lives and we just hoped that it would lead to substantial change so that it doesn’t continue to happen. “, said Anderson. “And unfortunately, it seems to be happening more frequently than in 1012.”


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