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Community Crisis Counseling After a Mass Shooting: A Therapist’s Reflection One Year Later

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

On the morning of Monday, July 4th, 2022, at 10:00 AM in Highland Park, Illinois, the annual July 4th weekend parade took a tragic turn. A gunman infiltrated the festivities, ascending a building and firing into the crowd. The happy occasion soon became a horrifying nightmare as gunfire pierced the air. The moment ballistics and shattered road surfaces revealed that it was not fireworks but active shooting, panic ensued. The crowd scrambled for cover. Tragically, this event claimed the lives of seven innocent individuals and injured 48 men, women, and children. What's worse, this heart-wrenching incident marked the 317th US mass shooting of 2022, pushing the year's mass shooting death toll to 331.

Despite the widespread knowledge of the Highland Park mass shooting, few were aware that it was just one of the ten mass shootings that unfolded across the United States on that same day. This event struck the heart of the Chicago community. In response, a local counseling center mobilized mental health therapists of all backgrounds to provide crisis intervention support.

Drop-in counseling available sign
The call for therapists spread like wildfire in the local therapist listserv, email chain, and social media.

I was one of many licensed therapists from Chicago and Highland Park surrounding areas who volunteered for the crisis intervention following the mass shooting. I am reflecting on this event one year later to document our response and its broader implications for communities affected by gun violence. As a mental health professional, I sought to write about this experience to capture the clinical challenges and share insights with fellow clinicians who might face similar challenges. In an environment where comprehensive solutions to the root causes of gun violence are elusive, ordinary citizens found themselves navigating the unthinkable with little time and guidance.

On Tuesday, my husband informed me that a colleague had emailed seeking therapists willing to volunteer their services at Highland Park High School, leading to my involvement in the crisis intervention effort. After a brief discussion and reflection with my husband, I answered the call to provide counseling support the next day. My motivation extended beyond my understanding of mental health support in a crisis context; I recognized the potential scarcity of clinicians of color in a predominantly white, affluent community like Highland Park. I realized that while plenty of white therapists are available for those affected, it might be helpful for people of color community members to have the choice to seek support from a person of color clinician.

On Wednesday morning, heading to Highland Park High School, I obtained little information to prepare myself besides showing up with my clinical license. Hours after this tragic event, the community transformed the High School into a hub of support and resources. Volunteers donning neon yellow vests intermingled with the Red Cross, the police, and FBI agents. Behind the front desk, the gymnasium had been transformed into the "loss and found, " housing the many chairs, shoes, strollers, phones, wallets, and personal objects the community members had lost in the chaos. After checking in at the front desk, I made my way to the other end of the High School that they had converted into a counseling center. The air was sad, quiet, yet friendly. Without introducing ourselves, perfect strangers answer to any need for help, giving direction, pointing out resources, and providing available answers in the context of a tragedy that gave none.

Inside a classroom, therapists were seated around long tables, and each was assigned a number. A French teacher stood in front of a whiteboard, updating the wait list of therapists as another coordinator managed the flow of clients coming through the Vine Avenue door. The teacher and the coordinator connected each community member who walked through the door with the next available therapist. As I waited, I saw the room was stocked with resources from art supplies to stuffed toys, allowing each therapist a range of tools without knowing what type of client each would meet next.

Later, I will find that Audrey Grunst, a licensed clinical social worker who owns and operates Simply Bee Counseling, had spearheaded the mobilization of a team of therapists, working in conjunction with Highland Park High School to provide free counseling services to the community. Over five days, the call for therapists spread like wildfire in the local therapist listserv, email chain, and social media. Therapists of all ages, backgrounds, and specialties showed up at all hours of the day to provide mental health support. At the end of five days, Highland Park High School provided space for 3234 counseling sessions with 697 therapists (Source: Simply Bee Counseling).

Crisis counseling at Highland Park High School
Counseling resources for residents of all ages

Through this experience, some themes emerged. I believe these themes are not unique to this community and may resonate with other communities affected by gun violence:

The Common Reactions to Trauma in the Community

In the aftermath of the mass shooting, a range of reactions to trauma cascaded through the community: Shock, disbelief, grief, anger, sadness, fear, and anxiety coursed through people from all walks of life. A shared sense of helplessness emerged as vulnerability transcended societal divisions. These complex emotions were intertwined with residents' feeling unable to stop thinking about the event and found themselves replaying the event in an endless loop in one's memories. These distressing but common traumatic responses were normalized, named, and discussed during crisis counseling. In a tragic event that gave no answers, therapists could at least discuss what's normal about being human in an abnormal circumstance.

Residents Loss Feelings of Safety in a Pervasive Way

A prevailing aftermath was the erosion of safety. The spaces once considered sanctuaries were now tainted by a pervasive sense of violation. Within homes and enclosed spaces, residents questioned their safety, their sense of security punctured by the traumatic event. Walking to shop for groceries, driving past downtown, or simply venturing outside into one's backyard became fraught with anxiety as the community grappled with the intrusion of danger into their daily lives.

Disruption of Routine, Loss of Coping Mechanisms

The incident completely disrupted the resident's routines. Uncertainty tinged the daily activities that once brought comfort and normalcy. One resident used downtown Central Avenue as their "turnaround point" for daily walks. Immediately after the incident, they completely broke down, disoriented from losing their safe space and the devastating evil that swept away this once simple, predictable routine. The loss of this stability intensified the focus on grief and anger, magnifying the trauma's emotional toll. As individuals grappled with the loss of their usual self-care routines, anxiety thrived in the absence of familiar coping mechanisms.

Hyper-Vigilance and Triggers

In the aftermath, residents found themselves with heightened sensitivity and vigilance. The sound of sirens, the sight of emergency vehicles, and the images of the July 4th celebration now triggered memories of the mass shooting. This hyper-vigilance was a constant reminder of the trauma, exacerbating anxiety and contributing to a state of perpetual distress. Residents in their homes found that they could not control the intrusion of these triggers. The unpredictable onset of these triggers exacerbated the loss of control.

Physiological Reactions

Many residents reported losing sleep, feeling wired, unable to relax, and losing appetite. Paired with excessive news consumption, many found themselves exhausted, having been awake for days, and hoping for relief by going to counseling and sharing their grief with others.

Parents' Concern for Their Children: What to Tell Them, How to Explain

For parents, the tragedy posed an intricate challenge: discussing the event with their children. Balancing honesty with age-appropriate explanations proved difficult as parents grappled with the need to address their children's emotions while shielding them from the total weight of the tragedy. Many turned to crisis counseling for guidance on navigating this delicate terrain. Explaining to children was particularly challenging as many parents found themselves overwhelmed and lost for words, struggling to find age-appropriate ways to communicate with their children following the incident. Much of the resources provided at the crisis counseling focus on this area. Some suggest being honest about things children can process, understand and be ready to validate emotions and confusion.

Conflict in Managing Negative Associations with Space and Objects

The event's impact extended to spaces and objects that once held positive connotations. The town square, symbolizing unity and celebration, now evoked painful memories. Similarly, personal things lost during the chaos carried newfound meanings, serving as poignant reminders of the trauma. Managing these negative associations became a part of the healing process. One parent struggled to explain why they had to replace a beloved stroller with their child. When the parent told me they had gone only as far as telling their child that "the police needed us to leave as quickly as we could" that day, and so "the stroller broke," unable to complete a convincing narrative, I suggested they plan for a new outing and bring the new stroller along to create new associations and new memories. I advised the resident to avoid anchoring solutions around the tragic event. Instead, I empower residents in crisis with tangible strategies to help them pave the road toward rebuilding their lives.

Broader Impact at Home: Grieving Differently

The traumatic event exposed the unique ways individuals process grief within relationships. One couple grappled with how they coped with trauma differently: one experienced delayed reactions while the other confronted immediate emotional turmoil. Through crisis counseling, therapists can help foster dialogue between partners, helping them navigate their emotions and supporting one another. Community members, including this couple, were suggested to follow up with a long-term therapist to continue processing the trauma and other emerging events.

Broader Impact at Home: Empowering Children in Their Helplessness

Children, too, felt the weight of the tragedy. Each child has a unique response and thought process. For some, the helplessness coincides with an earnest desire to contribute positively. School-age children, grappling with an understanding of the event, sought ways to assist, channeling their emotions into the quest for answers. It is most helpful to be curious about children's logic and thinking process, allowing the young children to show adults how they process the event. One young child disclosed that they watched the news continuously after the event because they hoped to provide clues to the police to help advance the investigation. To cap their overwhelming desire to help, their mother and I explained to the child the state of the investigation. By then, the police had apprehended the gunman, and he would be kept behind bars indefinitely, relieving the young child from having to provide the missing clue. Children are also encouraged to use the support of family, siblings, and community as they cope with the aftermath of the tragedy. Encouraging children to play, inviting their friends over, and asking them to spend time with family are accessible recommendations to families with multiple young children; play time offers the most natural outlet for self-expression for a range of young children who might not be able to access long-term therapy.

Grief and Loss: Impact on the Living Environment

The tragedy transformed the meaning of communal spaces, leaving residents to grapple with the loss of positive associations. The annual July 4th parade, once a joyful celebration, now carried an undercurrent of sorrow. This shift in meaning added a layer of grief, compounding the community's struggle to heal. This year, the Highland Park community oped for a walk instead of the parade, hoping to reclaim the space as the community slowly finds healing.

Loss of Community Members: A Community in Mourning

Beyond statistics, many lives lost were beloved members of the community. Friends, parents, and grandparents—their absence left a void that echoed throughout the community. The community not only mourned the loss of each individual but was overwhelmed by the anger of what had transpired that led to their loss. Many channeled their grief into creating and keeping a community memorial in the town center. Residents volunteered to keep the flowers fresh and maintain the memorial for many days following the incident.

Long-Term Medical Consequences: Survivors' Burden

Survivors of the mass shooting grappled with unforeseen medical challenges. These physical and emotional consequences carried unexpected financial burdens, shifting abilities, and demanding additional support. The lasting effects of the incident were a reminder of the enduring toll of gun violence on survivors. The event changed these families. The priorities of each member of the survivor's family changed forever.

The Role of Social Media

While the robust social network provided by social media helped connect therapists and community members in the aftermath of this tragic event, the limitless nature of social media can be very harmful to the mental health of trauma survivors. Many community members reported excessive use of social media. As part of the reaction to trauma and in an attempt to seek more information, community members turned to social media to find relief from the shock and disbelief. Some find comfort in the universality shared by others in the same community Facebook group, others find themselves unable to stop scrolling, hoping to find the answer to such senseless tragedy. For mental health purposes, I suggest community members take breaks from social media and set intentional boundaries around media consumption. Hours may pass between the 24/7 news cycle and the endless scrolling, exacerbating isolation, anxiety, and overwhelm. I suggested that community members take advantage of in-person gatherings, attending candlelight vigils, group prayers, and other community-supportive gatherings.

Highland Park High School entrance
In a moment's notice Highland Park High School transformed into a hub of support and resources

Illinois Government's Response

On August 15th, 2022, five weeks after the mass shooting, The Highland Park City Council passed a resolution calling for the state and federal governments to ban all semi-automatic weapons, high-capacity ammunition cartridges and magazines, and body armor.

On January 10th, 2023, Six months after the mass shooting in Highland Park, Governor JB Pritzker signed Public Act 102-1116, the Protect Illinois Communities Act (Act). The Act bans the selling and distributing assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and switches in Illinois. The Act went into effect immediately upon signing. Individuals who possessed assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and other devices listed in the Act before it took effect must submit an endorsement affidavit through their Firearm Owner's Identification Card account.

The law immediately faced pushback and challenges in State and Federal courts, with gun enthusiasts citing violations of Illinois and the US Constitution. In May 2023, gun rights advocates urged the US Supreme Court to block the Illinois Assault Weapon Ban with limited success, as the Supreme Course refused to intervene.

By August 11th, 2023, Illinois Supreme Court upholds the assault weapon ban.

Final Reflection

Therapists who volunteered to navigate the demand for crisis counseling after a disaster face unique challenges that diverge from the routine practices of day-to-day therapy. There was no time for customary processes like assessment, rapport-building, and structured termination. Yet, timeless therapeutic approaches remain steadfastly practical amidst these pressing circumstances. Strategies centered on validation, active listening, strength exploration, and psycho-education are valuable in high-stress situations.

In crisis counseling, counselors must focus on the immediacy of the situation. Providing comfort, fostering open dialogue, and furnishing critical information and resources emerge as priorities. Integral to this process is the art of empowering clients by spotlighting their innate strengths and capacities. Counselors play a pivotal role in guiding clients through the turmoil by encouraging them to engage in problem-solving, embrace self-care practices, and develop new coping strategies.

Stabilization is a crucial objective for crisis counselors, underscored by providing essential resources and a gentle nudge toward follow-up care and sustained counseling.

The intricacies of crisis counseling often necessitate a departure from traditional clinical practices, drawing therapists into unfamiliar territories that demand rapid response and on-the-spot intervention. This situation requires a versatile skill set, enabling therapists to engage with diverse clients in a single session—individuals spanning a spectrum of ages, races, genders, languages, cultures, and experiences. Facing diversity also asks the therapist to reflect on their humanity in the face of the dire situation the client is facing. Universal human needs become focused in these moments, and social constructs step into the background.

The therapists who readily step into the role of crisis counselors may hail from clinical backgrounds that differ significantly from the crisis settings they now find themselves in. Among these therapists are individuals who operate their private practices and engage in long-term client relationships stepping in to provide immediate, acute care. Therapists accustomed to taking the lead in their clinical practice have to prioritize the crisis intervention team's leadership. The adaptive abilities of therapists who can follow directions well allow the quick assembling of a successful community-based crisis intervention.

More than a year has passed since I was at the front line of this crisis response. I think about the residents I have met from time to time. I sincerely hope they continue to heal and utilize support. While we should never normalize the routine mass shooting in the US, we should normalize the need for mental health care, support, and ongoing dialogue. Finally, and most importantly, citizens should vote for public servants who support a safer environment. Without safety, a fundamental human right, we will have no luxury to pursue happiness and other aspirations.

Therapist for Crisis counseling at Highland Park High School
It's equally important to lead and to follow, particularly in a crisis situation. Cooperation allows for a swift and smooth operation.



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