Monday, Oct. 16, 2017 | 2 a.m.
“You never think it’ll happen to you. You see these horrific events on TV and try to imagine how you would react, or how you would survive, or IF you would survive,” wrote Brianna Hicks, a 22-year-old local who was at the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1 when bullets tore into the crowd. In the chaos, she was pinned down twice by the bodies of strangers — one who’d been shot and another trying to save her life.
Hicks’ father shared her Facebook post with her permission, thinking her honesty about the psychological wounds of mass shootings might help someone: “I’m so grateful that I made it out alive and that none of my friends or loved ones were taken from me. My heart is broken for those less fortunate from this traumatic event. At this point all I can think to do is really feel what I’m feeling, and keep crying when I need to get it out, and try to talk about it and what I saw, with hopes that I am able to process what’s happened and find peace with it, and to move on with living life as normally as I possibly can.”
It’s a message the entire Las Vegas community needs to hear.
“This is in many ways a psychic trauma, a psychic assault,” said Michelle Paul, director of UNLV mental health clinic The Practice. She was at the Thomas & Mack Center in the earliest hours of Oct. 2, providing crisis counseling for victims who’d just been bused there for shelter. They are at the highest risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, Paul said, though no one she’s encountered since the shooting has had more than two degrees of separation from it.
The city is hurting, and she hopes no one feels bad or weak for being affected.
“We’re probably all much closer to the event than we give ourselves compassion for,” she said. “We could take away the caring and the feeling weird and the being upset. But if we took that away, we would also have to take away the fact that we are social beings — we do connect with each other; we rely on human connection to survive and to get through on a day-to-day basis. So the fact that we are, as a city, hurting and feeling tired and stressed and grief and guilt, is all a sign that we care about each other. In that respect, I’m glad we’re hurting. ... I’d really, really worry if we didn’t experience the pain of this.”
Even through the darkness of what she saw and heard that night, Paul is overwhelmed by what she dubbed the exact opposite. “To say that there has been an outpouring of support, the words just don’t do it justice. As hard as it was to describe the tragedy, it has been equally hard to describe the humanity, the love, the support, the caring, all the positive growth.”
She said someone hung a sign in the clinic this week, a quote from Mr. Rogers about looking for, and always finding, the helpers.
Their ranks just keep multiplying, putting Las Vegas firmly on the road to healing. –Erin Ryan
Trauma radiates from the epicenter: The closer you were to the violence, the more likely you are to experience acute effects and a longer recovery. “You have the possibility of PTSD as a direct result of this shooting, not only for the people who were there, but even for people who become absorbed with following what’s going on,” said retired FBI agent Kenneth Gray, now a lecturer at the University of New Haven’s College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences. Some of the anxiety is about what we don’t know — the killer’s motive, and the likelihood such horror will happen here again.
“All of us, when this happens it shakes us up,” said Dan Mosley, mental health lead for the Red Cross team that responded to the shooting. "Those who were at the event and were injured, of course they’re going to have an impact that’s of a magnitude that may not (afflict) others.”
Alongside the festival’s 22,000 attendees, first responders and medical practitioners who treated them are more likely to have severe responses to the trauma. Even so, experts say most people will recover without developing issues that disrupt their lives over the long term.
Common Responses to Acute Stress
• Fear, anger, irritability — feeling raw emotionally. With that can come unhealthy eating and difficulty sleeping.
• Withdrawing. People may avoid social situations that remind them of the event (crowds, music, loud noises, etc.), though isolation can intensify struggles.
• Re-experiencing the event. This can happen in severe flashbacks that feel real or intrusive memories that make it hard to function in daily life.
• Nightmares. This is the mind’s attempt to process the overwhelming information absorbed after what happened.
Paul said people should be kind to themselves about whatever they’re feeling. “You want to avoid judging yourself and punishing yourself,” she said. “Inner experience needs to be allowed to bubble up and be appreciated as a signal. Pain is your friend. ‘What is the signal telling me? How do I want to act in service of it?’ You’re allowed to feel and have healthy distractions and soothe your symptoms as they run their course.”
Paul likened dealing with emotional trauma to fighting a virus with no quick and easy cure. What’s important is to recognize the condition and practice self-care accordingly. She said that as a general guideline, if adverse effects don’t improve within two or three weeks, it’s advisable to seek counseling to head off unhealthy coping or avoidance. Paul said that can take the form of excessive use of drugs or alcohol to numb the pain, or willful isolation from the very people or situations that could aid recovery. Such habits can become downward spirals. “Those are times to come out and say, ‘I need some help,’ ” Paul said, emphasizing that connection is the key, even just with friends and family members.
Different Ways of Coping
There is no formula for dealing with tragedy. Some people might be open and talkative right away, while others keep to themselves before gradually confiding in loved ones. Trying to push your way of coping onto someone else could do more harm than good, Mosley said. “Respect everyone’s individual recovery process. When that is respected, that in itself is an assist in their recovery.”
Paul said it’s healthy to seek distractions or moments of humor and lightness as you process. “The memories will never go away, but they can get tucked farther back and become less salient, less prominent in our day to day. As we let it run its course, we just have to remember to put kindness and care and recovery at the front end and focus our attention in those directions.”
• Allow yourself to grieve while seeking positive distractions such as getting outside for a walk or hike to spur energy and natural healing endorphins. Eating well and getting plenty of sleep will build on that framework of healthy routine.
• You don’t have to talk about the trauma, but don’t withdraw. Ask for support. Spend time with friends and family. “Being in a nurturing place, with somebody there by your side that you can talk to or not talk to, that is a very positive part of the healing process,” Mosley said.
• It’s natural to seek answers, but if the news is making you feel worse, unplug, agree UNLV experts Paul, Carlton Craig (director of the School of Social Work) and Katherine Hertlein (director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program). In that vein, they advised that talking with people face-to-face can be a more powerful support than texting or connecting through social media.
• Practice relaxation techniques. Diaphragmatic breathing from the deep belly has been shown to relieve stress and muscle tension, and apps that promote calm and mindfulness might help motivate self-care.
• Apply your creativity. Local woodworker Ken Beck made 10 memorial plaques and posted a picture on Facebook, hoping to raise $250 for victims. "In about 24 hours time, the post garnered more than 2,000 shares, and he had orders pouring in at the rate of 100 every 15 minutes. He stopped taking orders at 900 and started reaching out to fellow woodworkers and engravers in Las Vegas to help," Beck's then-fiancee Tiffannie Bond said in an email. "It was about four days until our wedding in California and following honeymoon, so he had to work fast! He has a list of people willing to help and even more who reached out to say they would help deliver, package and mail if needed. It’s been truly overwhelming."
Activist art collective INDECLINE, which over the years has created several installations in Las Vegas, added its latest behind the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. Near the 58 crosses placed to remember those killed in the shooting, a large painting shows an interpretation of the American flag. The stripes are guns, and the stars are hearts within the number 58. Overlaid are people linking arms and the words: All the arms we need.
• Act in service of your values. “An important way for the community to heal is to find ways to take action,” said Maria Tcherni-Buzzeo, a criminologist with a background in psychology at the University of New Haven. “People who went to donate blood, that’s a very powerful way of healing because you feel you are doing something, you’re helping, you are essentially relieving the consequences of this tragedy.” Others are finding purpose by engaging in the conversation about gun reform or in the work of advocacy groups. Paul said that when her 18-year-old son asked her why this happened, they ended up talking about voting. And for her friend’s young daughter, release came through making coupons for hugs.
“I think when we volunteer and we get out there, it reminds us that we do have efficacy, that we do have a place, we do have the power to help, even if it’s just one person,” Paul said. “It reminds us that there’s hope.” –Mick Akers, Julie Ann Formoso, Yvonne Gonzalez & Erin Ryan
Talking to Kids About Tragedy
A common mistake parents make after something as unthinkable as a mass shooting is over-explaining, Paul said. Instead of following their child’s lead, they unload too much heavy information. She said it’s best to start on the child’s level, asking what he or she knows or has heard at school. After clearing up any misconceptions, parents should encourage kids to ask their own questions.
“I think it’s appropriate to acknowledge that something bad happened. Because even kids who are pre-verbal, they can sense that something’s wrong. ... For that age, you can just say, ‘Something really sad happened in our city today, and it makes me feel sad too because a lot of people were hurt and it was scary for a lot of people.’ That’s all you have to say,” Paul asserted, adding that parents should keep their emotions in check. Crying is absolutely allowed, but losing control could turn attempts at comfort into something scary. “One of the most powerful things parents and caregivers of children can do is model healthy coping.”
That also applies to keeping up and establishing routines that aid healing. Take the kids on walks, give them lots of hugs and limit their exposure to media surrounding the event. And if they keep asking the classic question — why? — don’t hide from it. Be honest and genuine, Paul said, without going into unnecessary detail. “I think what we can say is, ‘You know what, sometimes really bad things happen in life to really good people, and none of us know why. … Our job is to make decisions today about how we can help people,’ ” she said. "I think kids like having a sense of something they can do too.” -Erin Ryan
When Loss Affects a School Community
Healing Activities for Teens
Lisa Diffley, the counselor at Coronado High School, said students have been taking advantage of counseling services. At home, she said, parents should watch for any changes in their kids’ behavior and routines, whether it’s a drop in grades or holing up in the bedroom.
As teens move forward, their caregivers should encourage these activities:
• Try to accept what you can’t control, and let people know if you’re not OK.
• Spend time outside exercising, volunteering or enjoying community events.
• Ask your friends to talk and listen to you.
• Attend a vigil.
• Write letters to first responders.
• Donate blood, money or supplies.
The grocery stores: Empty. The houses: wrecked. People’s lives: shattered.
That’s the situation students at Northside High School in Houston faced once Hurricane Harvey laid waste to their community in August. For some time, their survival depended on what resources were available from charities.
Then Coronado High School in Henderson stepped in. The school’s principal had a friend at Northside and appealed to the Coronado student council for help. They did not let him down.
A drive was started Sept. 4. In less than two weeks, students and their families had donated enough supplies to fill three semi-trucks lent to them by Boulder Boats. Northside was sent stockpiles of food, water, pillows, pet supplies and much more.
“I was very impressed with my entire council,” said Cresen Swenson, Coronado’s student council activities director. “It was never about them. It was always about helping others.”
On social media, Northside students boasted about the help they received from 1,500 miles away.
Then tragedy struck again, this time in the Las Vegas Valley. Coronado student Nick Campbell took a bullet to the shoulder at the Route 91 Harvest festival, and classmate Ayzayah Hartfield lost his dad, who was a Metro Police officer, to the shooting.
No care basket could mend the hearts of the Coronado community, but that did not stop Northside from trying. The Houston students filmed themselves expressing love and support for Coronado and Las Vegas and shared the video on Twitter.
“It made me cry,” said Haley Tyrell, Coronado’s student body historian.
Tyrell was at the music festival, along with some friends. She left before the shooting began, but one of her closest friends was shot in the back and is now in recovery.
Students and staffers from both schools remain in contact and continue to share messages of healing on Twitter.
“It’s really nice that we made an impact,” Tyrell said. “And it’s nice that they paid it forward.” -Julie Ann Formoso
FROM THE GRIEF GROWS A GARDEN
Jay Pleggenkuhle, co-owner of Stonerose Landscapes, woke up the morning after the shooting and grieved alone, as many people did across the valley.
He wanted to bring people together in the spirit of healing, and imagined a pop-up garden downtown. So he called the city of Las Vegas to make sure his plan was in compliance with regulations. Mourning staff member Cameron Robinson, a 28-year-old killed in the shooting, city leaders ran with the garden idea.
A quarter-acre of vacant city land was chosen for the installation, between Casino Center and Charleston boulevards behind a bus stop. It was close enough to be walkable for city employees and secluded enough to offer tranquility to anyone who stopped.
On the back of a napkin, Pleggenkuhle sketched what was in his head. Volunteers built it in five days.
A week after the shooting, the air in the Community Healing Garden smelled of burnt-out votive candles. Bees were buzzing among the yellow bells, carnations and roses overflowing below the Remembrance Wall. Birthday balloons were wrapped around a young tree. On the trunk of another were paper letters reading “Miss and love you so much mommy!”
Each day that the garden grows, so does the memorial.
Heart Island: Pleggenkuhle said the island represents the city’s heart. Those present during the garden’s Oct. 6 launch painted tiles that will become a mosaic around the heart. “Gardens are a symbol of life,” he said. “In fall they lose their leaves, but in spring there’s rebirth.” In the center of the island is an oak, the ‘tree of life’ in Celtic culture. There are many cultural and religious references to such a tree, with roots growing into the underworld and branches reaching into the heavens.
Memorial Trees: Volunteers planted 58 trees for the 58 lives lost. “One of my favorite quotes is: ‘He who plants a tree plants hope,’ ” Pleggenkuhle said. “We planted a lot of trees to plant a lot of hope.”
Remembrance Wall: The wall was crafted from wood that curves around the central oak tree. Pleggenkuhle said there are plans to create a more permanent structure, but for now the city wanted a vessel for keepsakes. Many are photos or letters, some from family and friends of the victims. At the base of the wall is a paper tree with 58 hearts blooming from its branches under the banner #hearts4vegas. Created by the city’s social media team, Hearts4Vegas is a pipeline for love and support. On its website, the description reads: “Our hearts are broken. Help Las Vegas heal. Send a heartfelt message to our city.” So far, letters have come from Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas and New York.
Alley Mural: Behind the garden, volunteers painted a mural that wasn’t part of the original plan, according to city spokesman Jace Radke. On a lavender background, winged hearts fly under a rainbow next to the words: In loving memory of ... 58 –Camalot Todd
SNAPSHOTS OF THE GOODNESS AROUND US
Therapy Dogs Take on Trauma
Various groups with assistance dogs have been making the rounds at area hospitals and the county’s Family Assistance Center, giving comfort to shooting victims and their families.
Human interaction is vital to bouncing back from trauma, but handlers say incorporating these animals into the equation is uniquely beneficial.
“Our brains don’t function properly when we experience trauma, as we have trouble processing information,” said Kim Gramlich, coordinator of the Delta Police Victim Services program in British Columbia, Canada, while in town responding to the tragedy. “When you have a dog to assist you on a neurological level, you’re able to process your feelings and talk about how you feel as well. ... They provide unconditional love and affection. They calm people down; they reduce their blood pressure and lower their heart rate. When we spend time with dogs we have elevated levels of oxytocin as well. So, there are biochemical things dogs can do to help people out.” –Mick Akers
Veterans Join Crisis Response
The mission, Richard Carreon explains, changed continuously for his volunteer group of veterans in the days after Oct. 1.
Immediately after the shooting, the Nevada Veterans Association put out a call for blood donations. By sunrise, they’d moved on to collecting water, juice and snacks for distribution. A day later, they were stocking local food banks.
As the shock of the massacre begins to wear off, Carreon’s force of 150 veterans plans to shine light in a dark corner they know too well — post-traumatic stress. They’re working to raise awareness within Southern Nevada of what will be an ongoing need for mental health services.
“Because we’ve been conditioned to deal with this situation, we’re extending our arm out to them to help deal with some of the stressors,” Carreon said. “While everyone talks about (needing) to do more for veterans, this is the time veterans can use their skill set to take care of the community.”
Carreon, 37, was deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan for counterinsurgency and small-team tactics work. He served 14 years in the Army before a medical retirement, moving to Las Vegas three years ago.
He emphasized the need for managers and human resources departments to watch for signs of post-traumatic stress in employees, such as degradation of work performance, increased hostility, withdrawal or tension in close relationships.
“We already know these people are going to need some sort of counseling. Depending on work schedules or routines they want to get back to, they may not have time immediately to seek that help,” he said. “But if they’re made aware of the resources ahead of time, and (managers) make sure they can access those resources, it’s important.”
Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Seroka is a retired Air Force colonel who advocates for the inclusion of veterans in various facets of the community. He acknowledges that while the struggles of veterans with post-traumatic stress are well-documented, many former military members are perfectly suited to help 1 October victims and families.
“While we hear about vets that have been challenged by situations, the vast majority of veterans go through those challenges and come out stronger than when they went in,” Seroka said. “Now in the aftermath of this tragedy, you have a community of veterans that has prepared, has lived it, ready and willing.” –Adam Candee
Vegas Golden Knights Bring Hope
Heading into its first home game, Las Vegas’ first pro sports team had to pivot from a planned party to a remembrance of the deadliest shooting in modern American history. All advertising was cleared from the rink’s dasher boards, which wrapped the ice with #VegasStrong. T-shirts bearing that message and a custom logo were sold before the game for $20, with proceeds going to charity. Golden Knights executives and players sported the hashtag prominently. “It’s like, how can you give a hug to the city the right way?” Brian Killingsworth, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, said.
The Golden Knights succeeded. After their warm-up a video was shown, featuring every NHL captain saying “your team is our team.” Players were introduced along with first responders, medical personnel and law enforcement officers who played a role in the crisis response. And 58 seconds of silence ticked by as the names of those killed flashed on the ice.
Head coach Gerard Gallant said his message to the team had been simple: “We talked about tonight being the most important game we’ll ever play,” he said. “We’re playing for our city, for the tragedy that happened, for all the people that were here tonight and were affected by the tragedy. I thought the guys did a hell of a job.” -AC
HELP IS OUT THERE
As the horrors of Oct. 1 unfolded, mental health experts sprang into action. Dozens of outlets offered free crisis counseling to anyone who needed to talk, and many have pledged to keep up the support. Click here for a running list of places to call for help.
Here is a sampling of the resources available locally and beyond.
• The Practice: 702-895-1532
• Center for Individual, Couple and Family Counseling: 702-895-3106
For the foreseeable future, these mental health clinics on campus are offering free crisis counseling to anyone in the community affected by the shooting. Call for an assessment to be matched with a counselor.
Call to speak with a coordinator who’ll address your immediate counseling needs, or visit the website and click the “Disaster Resources” tab for more ways to cope and find counseling. 888-654-0050
This developing directory of providers is about offering free or low-cost counseling sessions to high-risk populations, and a landing page — thero.org/VegasStrong — has been created for survivors of the Las Vegas massacre. Participating therapists are listed with descriptions and contacts to set up sessions.
Created by Boys Town, this emotional-support portal is designed for all struggling kids and teens, whether help comes through the hotline (800-448-3000, 24/7), text (noon-11 p.m. PDT), online chat (4-10 p.m. PDT Monday-Friday) or email (response within 48 hours).
Employee Assistance Programs
Interventional support programs are offered by many companies as part of health care benefits. EAPs may cover a number of therapy sessions, so employees should ask their human resources departments whether they have such coverage.
The Lifeline is staffed 24/7 by a national network of more than 160 local crisis centers providing free and confidential support for anyone in emotional distress. 800-273-8255