Mental Health Experts Say 'Abnormal Reactions Are Normal' After El Paso Shooting | KERA News

Mental Health Experts Say 'Abnormal Reactions Are Normal' After El Paso Shooting

Aug 22, 2019

News of the El Paso shooting hit close to home for Julio Acosta. His family came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was two, and he grew up in North Texas, where the suspected shooter lived.

Acosta sees the attack as the culmination of ongoing anti-immigrant attitudes and policies.

"Driving more than eight hours to El Paso, specifically to target a certain community of color," Acosta says, "that has really resonated a lot with the Latino community because it's a whole other world to know that, 'Wow, my mom, my dad, me, my family — like my life — is in danger because of this increase of rhetoric.'"

The suspected shooter told police he was targeting "Mexicans" when he drove from North Texas to the border city to carry out his Aug. 3rd attack. Authorities believe he also posted a racist online rant on what he called a "Hispanic invasion of Texas."

Credit American Psychological Association

Since the shooting, Acosta has been burying himself in his advocacy work. He’s a volunteer with the nonprofit Faith in Texas. And he's involved with a number of other social justice groups around town.

"I have been more intentional... to know that's it's necessary to be aware of our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health," he says.

A survey out this month shows recent mass shootings are a significant source of stress for many Americans. The American Psychological Association reports almost a third of adults in the U.S. say a fear of mass shootings keeps them from going to certain places or events. Hispanic adults were about twice as likely as non-Hispanic white adults to experience frequent stress about the possibility of such an attack. They were also less likely to know how to cope with those feelings, according to the survey.

Susan Silk, a Michigan-based psychologist and longtime mental health volunteer with the American Red Cross, has provided care to survivors of natural disasters, airplane accidents, terror attacks and a school shooting. 

"Abnormal reactions are normal in an abnormal situation, and certainly the shooting at a Walmart is about as abnormal a situation as you can imagine," Silk says. “People becoming anxious, fearful, people becoming irritable, people becoming angry, people becoming hypervigilant, those are for the time being normal reactions."

Silk says it's not just survivors who are affected. A mass shooting can heighten fears or bring up past traumas for anyone. And after the El Paso shooting, she says, it's to be expected that Latino residents feel targeted.

Silk also says there are notable differences in community mental health after a natural disaster versus an act of violence. She remembers responding to the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shooting.

"There was a sense of anger," she says. "There was a sense of outrage. There was sort of existential doubt - 'Why has this happened? Who did this? Why?'"

After a hurricane or earthquake, she says, there's less anger. In any case, treatment looks different for everyone.

Credit American Psychological Association

"It is so important and so helpful for people who have experienced a tragedy or an enormous loss to just feel like they are listened to," says psychologist Dan Mosley, who also volunteers with the American Red Cross and has provided mental health care after floods, wildfires, terror attacks and multiple mass shootings.

Mosley says there's no easy fix for helping people heal, and it's important to let survivors process grief in their own way. On a personal level, Mosley says simply opening the door to conversation can help. He says talking about safety concerns can help ease anxiety.

"Having some idea about who you can reach out to, what you can do to protect yourself — a plan for safety, basically — for every family, can be reassuring to that family," he says.