How a community can address mental health, questions amid mass shootings

Two Texas Troopers light a candle at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday. A Huntsman Mental Health Institute expert discussed how community members and parents can address mental health struggles and questions following mass shootings. (Jae C. Hong, Associated Press)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY – Words often used to describe mass shootings like the one at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde that killed 19 children and two teachers include “devastating,” “heartbreaking,” “senseless” and “horrific.”

Emotions following mass tragedies can be overwhelming and can leave communities with questions about how to address them, said Dr. Scott Langenecker of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Statistics from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security reveal that 2021 had the most incidences of school shootings at 238, which is more than double the previous year at 119. Teens and parents in the aftermath of mass shootings indicate they are very worried about school shootings, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

“There’s lots of bad things that happen and it’s really hard to take them all in and to hold that,” Langenecker said Wednesday. “My best advice to people is literally to say, ‘OK, what can I do about this right now?'”

Answering that question can be difficult while grappling with your own emotions and can grow more complicated when addressing your child’s fears and questions.

Utah Rep. Blake Moore said he cleared his schedule Wednesday to walk his sons to school in wake of the shooting.

“As a dad, that was the best I could do today. I do not know how to talk to them about what happened yesterday in Uvalde,” Moore said on Twitter.

If a young child asks about a school shooting and asks if it’ll happen at their school, Langenecker suggests having them help watch for people who are struggling.

“If you see somebody struggling in your school, tell a teacher about it or tell parents about it, and see if that person can get some help,” he said. “That’s not going to answer all the questions that are very complicated before us, but it gives a child something that they can do. It acts upon their basic instincts, which is to care for others.”

The Hunstman Mental Health Institute also suggests the following when discussing mass shootings with teens and children:

  • Provide information that helps address fears in an accurate context. Discuss safety protocols that are in place and how law enforcement works to address the threats.
  • Ask how they’re feeling and leave the door open for future conversations.
  • Monitor social media use as consistently viewing posts about the incident can evoke further anxiety, depression and trauma.
  • Seek professional help if anxiety or difficulties persist.

Before engaging in conversations, parents should check in with themselves and address their own emotions.

“I think the first thing that people feel is just a deep sadness and I think that’s a totally normal and natural response. But second, I think there’s a sense of helplessness, that these things are tragic and uncontrollable and the reality is that we have been fed a false narrative, “Langenecker said.

He emphasized the importance of gun safety in homes, utilizing the SafeUT app for mental health resources or to submit a tip, and further investments into mental health.

“We have a warm line available. We have a crisis line available. We have SafeUT available. The bottom line is nobody has to suffer alone and we can help people and we can move towards a society where we take care of people early on. We do not wait for things to boil over, “Langenecker added.

The call for increased mental health resources was repeated by several Utah elected officials on Tuesday. Advocates for additional counseling and support include Utah Rep. John Curtis, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

“There are often warning signs, and the bottom line is we do not have to wait. We do not have to wait for it to get to the point where things need to reach the point of violence toward self or others. If we notice that some of these change in their behavior or in their mood, the most important thing we can do is ask a caring question, “Langenecker said.

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Crisis Hotlines

  • Huntsman Mental Health Institute Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • SafeUT Crisis Line: 833-372-3388
  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-691-5433
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources

Warning signs of suicide

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.

Information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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Ashley Fredde is a reporter with covering arts, culture and entertainment news, as well as human services, minority communities and women’s issues. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism.

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