‘Still a lot of pain’: Four years after mass shooting, Texas community grapples with fallout


If you or someone you know is in crisis, dial “988” for the 988 Suicide & Crisis lifeline or text HOME to the crisis text line on 741741. (The old phone number, 800-273-8255, will continue to operate indefinitely. )

SANTA FE, Texas — In May 2018, after a high school shooting killed 10 people, the Santa Fe Resiliency Center opened in a church. Any resident could see a counselor, attend a support group, and participate in a healing mandala coloring class, music therapy, or an emotional first aid workshop, all for free.

Today, the center sits in a strip mall sandwiched between a seafood restaurant and vacant storefronts. On a recent evening, instead of patients filling the waiting room, counselors saw clients via video from their desks. The center seems empty but, according to the therapists, the need is still there.

“There’s still a lot of pain,” said Jacquelyn Poteet, a talkative therapist who runs the center. About 186 people see counselors each month, but she said many more people likely need the services in the city of nearly 13,000 people. “A lot of people don’t even realize they have trauma.”

Recently, she says, a former high school student had contemplated suicide. It was “a very tight call,” she said. “We are not off the hook.”

Over the past four years, millions of dollars for mental health services have flooded into this town, which seems remote even though it’s only 6 miles off the freeway connecting Houston and Galveston. But the lesson from Santa Fe, in a year when the United States averaged more than one mass shooting per day, is that even time and money have not healed the deep grief and persistent that is unique to such events. Santa Fe, like communities across the country, has changed forever.

Most locals agree that four years after the unthinkable, Santa Fe is still reeling from those 30 minutes between the 17-year-old shooter’s first shots and his surrender to police. And they’re still grappling with everything that followed — the school board fights, the City Hall roll, the shooter’s delayed trial, and even the dispute over sanity offers provided in response.

The lasting trauma here serves as a cautionary tale for residents of Highland Park, Illinois; Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, New York – and everywhere else affected by such violence. The Santa Fe experience reveals both the importance and the challenge of building mental health resources quickly and sustainably, especially in communities that lacked resources before the traumatic event.

Prior to filming, few therapists worked directly in Santa Fe. And like other small communities in rural America, it’s a place where many are skeptical of therapists, not realizing they need help. helping or simply preferring to ignore the pain. Four years later, Santa Fe is still mired in grief, as federal funding that helped establish its local mental health infrastructure recedes.

After the shooting, the state created the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, which includes a program that helps schools connect children with mental health specialists in virtually two weeks. But that program has so far rolled out to 40% of the state’s student population — and it hadn’t reached Uvalde before his school’s shooting in May.

“In light of Uvalde, there is a desire to make these programs fully statewide,” said Dr. David Lakey, consortium chair and vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas.

In June, Republican Governor Greg Abbott announced that Texas would spend $5 million on a resilience center in Uvalde. This city also previously had few mental health services. Eight years ago, Congress began funding community behavioral health clinics, but they’ve been slow to spread across the country. A new federal effort aims to expand them further.

Communities that have experienced mass shootings illustrate the long-term significance of such trauma. In 2019, six years after Jeremy Richman’s daughter Avielle was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, he took his own life. Later that year, Columbine shooting survivor Austin Eubanks died of a heroin overdose at the age of 37, two decades after he was injured and his best friend was killed.

After a shooting, people would ideally have access to services through several routes: their primary care physician, specialists in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, and even residential treatment programs, Dr. Shaili said. Jain, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma at Stanford University. “What future for children who survive these massive traumatic events if they don’t get the mental health help they need? she says.

After the 2018 Santa Fe shooting, “everyone was scrambling” to organize the mental health response, said Deedra Van Ness, whose daughter witnessed the attack. Santa Fe officials and mental health groups have applied for grants through the federal Victims of Crime Act Fund, which draws money from criminal fines, forfeited bonds and other fees federal justice. The city set up the resilience center in a Methodist church that the Red Cross had used for initial crisis operations because it was one of the few buildings with space in the sprawling community.

Van Ness’s daughter, Isabelle Laymance, had spent 30 minutes locked in an art supply closet, which the shooter fired into, killing several teenagers. Van Ness sent Laymance, now 19, to a teenage PTSD specialist in Clear Lake City for nine months, which cost up to $300 a month with insurance, before transferring her to the resilience center. There she was referred to the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital. His visits were free, but his psychiatric drugs cost about $20 a month.

Van Ness said her daughter would suffer panic attacks for hours at school, the very one where the shooting happened. She was absent for over 100 days in her second year. At one point, Van Ness said, she and her family visited the resilience center daily to attend family counseling and use other services.

Flo Rice, a substitute teacher injured in the Santa Fe shooting, was able to get in touch immediately with a counselor from the Galveston Family Services Center who showed up in her hospital room one day. For years she called her, texted her, and saw her for free. But Rice is forever changed. She can’t be near a school or go to a restaurant. She can’t sleep without medication.

“PTSD, to me, is life,” Rice said.

The state gave $7 million to service providers, the city and the school district through the federal fund for victims of crime in response to the shooting, according to the governor’s office. Still, the amounts have dwindled each year, with some groups no longer receiving funds, according to state records.

The city doesn’t have the budget to fund such programs on its own, said Santa Fe Mayor Bill Pittman.

The scarcity of resources is representative of larger mental health care gaps in the state, said Greg Hansch, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Unlike most states, Texas has not expanded eligibility for Medicaid, the federal program for low-income Americans that is the nation’s largest payer of mental health services. And the state, like many others, suffers from a severe shortage of mental health workers. More than half of Texas’ population lives in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals, according to KFF.

The Santa Fe community is torn between oblivion and mourning. Memorials to the eight students and two teachers killed dot this town. An 8-foot-tall empty aluminum chair stands in front of the high school. Ten white crosses are planted in the grass next to the Maranatha Christian Center. Green and black benches made from recycled plastic covers can be found at the library and therapeutic garden behind City Hall.

The long-term emotional toll also remains visible, according to Poteet. Many students left for college but returned home after a year. Marriages collapsed. The children turned to alcohol or drugs.

“The town is still very angry,” said Mandy Jordan, whose son has survivor’s guilt because he was late for school the day of the shooting. She and her family eventually left Santa Fe. “It’s almost in the air.”

So far, however, no suicides related to the shooting have occurred. “It’s by the grace of God that it didn’t happen,” Poteet said.

Reagan Gaona, 20, credits a therapist with helping save his life. Gaona was finishing her second year when her boyfriend, Chris Stone, was killed at school. It took three therapists to find the right person. Now, on one side of Gaona’s left forearm, she has a tattoo of a rose next to the shooting date, May 18, 2018, and on the other side butterflies with semicolons. as a body, meaning mental health awareness and suicide prevention. It represents “that I’m taking flight from my depression and growing my wings,” she said. “How beautiful I am.

Gaona regularly has panic attacks and muscle spasms related to anxiety. She attended the University of Kansas for a year on a softball scholarship before returning to the area. She feels better, but says she “also feels empty”.

The shooting also derailed Laymance’s plans. She intended to go to college on a bowling scholarship to study interior design.

But PTSD has been a major hurdle. She suffers from short-term memory loss. When she went to orientation at a junior college, she felt unsafe hearing about Texas’ open transportation policy on campus. She wants to go – and study psychology – but for now, she works as an assistant manager at Sonic, a fast food restaurant.

Van Ness said the person her daughter was that day died. Her daughter is trying to figure out who she is now.

“We’re just as proud of her progress as we would have been with just about any decision she chose,” Van Ness said, “as long as she continues to choose life.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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