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Tragedy Strikes Boulder, Injecting Sadness, Fear, Anger Into an Already Vulnerable Society

When tragedy hits close to home, it can be impossible to know how to cope. Especially when feelings of anxiety, stress or overall sadness take over. Experts from the CU School of Medicine help guide you to strategies of support and what to look out for in yourself and in others when it comes it your mental health.

Debra Melani

CU School of Medicine expert shares potential mental health threats, strategies for supporting our community

When a gunman opened fire this week in a grocery store next door to our Boulder sister campus, he added to a string of shootings that has put the state on an unwanted map. From the Columbine High School nightmare to the Aurora theater shootings, many Colorado residents and healthcare providers have seen such tragedies unfold before.

It doesn’t make it any easier. In fact, the collective effect of absorbing such horrific and senseless loss – 10 lives, including a police officer’s, were taken in the King Soopers rampage – can be even more devastating for providers and bystanders.

Are you experiencing stress, anxiety, sadness or other feelings in the wake of the tragedies? Please see our list of traumatic event resources and other support services.

We talked to our expert, Steven Berkowitz, MD, about the potential mental health fallout of the March 22 shooting. Berkowitz, a psychiatry professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, offered ways we can protect ourselves and our fellow community members during this time of mourning, which is compounded even more by an incredibly difficult year.

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Colorado is no stranger to mass shootings. Can you talk about how our history with shootings might trigger different emotional responses? Can it cause more debilitating outcomes?

It’s a really good question. Anybody who has experienced any kind of interpersonal violence, school shooting, or any mass shooting, is going to be triggered. It’s just the nature of how we work, how we operate. And I anticipate that many of them will be having very difficult times.

And then anybody who is associated with any of the shootings that have occurred in Colorado, whether as a responder, a provider, any kind of supporter, is going to also have triggers. These are reminders of something that they may have managed to cope with, but now it comes back and is just full-blown.

I think it’s also important to recognize that we’ve been living through a year where we are anxious and worried about our safety and our health. And now we’ve had two major shootings (Atlanta spa shootings) in the last two weeks. I think no one feels safe these days.

I think many of us are just feeling emotionally exhausted from the events of the past year, am I right?

No question. How much more can you take? How much more can you manage without falling apart? This is incredibly difficult to deal with, and when you think of a traumatic event, a mass shooting is kind of the pinnacle. Anybody who was involved in the shooting is in a really difficult situation and is at very high risk for mental health issues.

This latest tragedy comes very close to our greater University of Colorado community. Some Boulder students witnessed the event. What effects are psychologists bracing for on our campuses and surrounding communities, and what have you already seen?

One of the things that we need to recognize is that these things often will hit a little bit later. So right now, there are people who haven’t kind of felt the full brunt. There are the psychological first aid approaches that Mental Health Partners in Boulder are taking the lead on now. But we are fully expecting an influx of people who are affected by this event. And one thing I will say is the earlier that you seek help and obtain it, the better your chances are of full recovery. The longer you wait, the more difficult your treatment will be.

What signs should we watch for in our fellow students, our colleagues and ourselves?

A couple of the predictors of needing help are profound sleep disturbances: nightmares, difficulty falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night. If that lasts more than a couple days after the event, that’s a warning sign. Intense irritability, where you feel like you can’t manage anything, when the slightest thing is feeling overwhelming, that’s typically a sign. Also, feeling the sort of obverse: really numb, nothing matters, I don’t care about anything, is also concerning. And just profound anxiety about everything, worrying about everything. If it’s always on your mind that you’re not safe, if you are feeling really anxious, having panic symptoms, that’s something that really needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

What can people do to protect their mental health?

There are two things that really stand out as being protective. One is feeling effective. So, if you can find ways of doing that: Maybe it’s raising money for victims’ families. Maybe it’s supporting the providers and sending messages of support. Any of those sorts of things are very useful.

And then the other is being connected. Really spending time with the people that you care about or know well to talk things through and to be together. Those two things are really important right now for anybody. Just support each other.

I know you have stated concerns about members in our community because of the surge in violence during the pandemic against Asian American/Pacific Islanders, and now news reports about the gunman’s Muslim and mental health background. Can you expand on those?

I have tremendous concern about the response of violence toward Middle Easterners and South Asians. We need to provide messages and support for them, as well as for anybody with mental illness. And what I think we can do as a society is to recognize that these various groups historically, and now as much as ever, have been targeted and are feeling unsafe. The rest of us need to say: “We are here for you. We want to do whatever we can to make sure that you can be part of our community, our neighborhood, our school, our college, our university. You tell me what that would take.” We can’t presume to know, but we can learn, and we can be available.

One reaction to tragedies like this and to the violence we’ve been witnessing against these communities is anger. What do we do with that emotion?

Anger is OK. You have every right to feel angry. It’s not about feeling angry. It’s about what you do with it. You can channel anger into things that are effective and pro-social. You don’t want anger to take over, but it’s absolutely OK to be angry. I’m angry.

Conversely, there is some concern that people are becoming numb to the violence and not having the same level of reactions to the violence. What can you tell us about the potential implications of that phenomenon?

You know, I was just talking about this with my team, and there’s almost a societal numbness, and that I find really, really concerning. I think for people who are numb, it’s almost a protective response. Getting numb and not feeling is a way to manage what is just too overwhelming to deal with. And people who are numb are going to be those we are going to see in our psychiatric clinics and health programs down the road.

For our state, first it was a school, then a movie theater and now a neighborhood grocery store. Can you talk about the increasing lost sense of safety for our community? How do we remain vigilant during these times while still being able to enjoy life?

I’m reminded of those scenes in war-torn areas where kids are kicking around a soccer ball. And the key is to define life and to find joy where it’s available. Everybody has to figure out where that is for them and how much they can take. Personally, I can say being active and getting involved in these things makes me feel better. And I would suggest that if you are feeling angry, you are feeling upset, you are feeling fearful, be active, whether it’s working with your Congress people, or with friends and colleagues. Do something that you think will make a difference.