Mourners take part in a vigil near the border fence between Mexico and the United States after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 3. (Carlos Sanchez/CNS)
Mourners take part in a vigil near the border fence between Mexico and the United States after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 3. (Carlos Sanchez/CNS)

Firearm attacks have changed society in the United States. Mass shootings are becoming more frequent and the helpless public is forced to face the psychological consequences, often silently.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos survey conducted last month, more than half of American adults consider mass shootings a latent threat. Many reported experiencing a sense of insecurity with increased anxiety levels.

One respondent put it this way: “This situation puts you on alert because you never know when or where the next massacre will happen. There is an imitation effect and it is happening very frequently.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, leaders in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said recent mass shootings reveal a terrible truth.

“We can never again believe that mass shootings are an isolated exception,” the two Catholic bishops said. “They are an epidemic against life that we must, in justice, face.”

Statistics from the Gun Violence Archive show that in the course of 2019 there have been 271 mass attacks with weapons in the United States, with 279 dead, hundreds wounded and thousands of families mired in pain.

After a white supremacist shooter in El Paso, Texas, sought to “kill as many Mexicans as possible” Aug. 3, the fear is especially strong among Hispanic families. Mental health hangs in the balance.

“I feel that the focus of the attacks and racism is directly against us,” said Edith Castillo, executive director of the Catholic Charities program El Programa Hispano, based in Gresham.

Castillo, herself a mental health counselor, does not mince words in blaming Trump administration rhetoric and federal immigration policy.

It’s not a stretch to say that terms like “invaders” can spark criminal actions against Hispanics, Castillo said.

“Many people have been fleeing places with a lot of violence in search of a place that gives them peace and quiet, but people are afraid of the current situation,” said Elsa Tzintzun, a mental health counselor at El Programa Hispano. “This causes immigrants to feel isolated and marginalized.”

Even those who were not present during an attack are affected by news reports, especially video. Trauma becomes an invisible and silent companion.

In 2014, after a shooting at Reynolds High School, which left two students dead and a teacher wounded, El Programa Hispano offered psychological support. It was then that staff began to wonder about the impacts specific to young people.

Tzintzun explained that after violent events it is normal for people to feel anxious and afraid. Children might begin to behave differently and the changes can dampen their performance in school. The counselor lists irritability, nightmares, insomnia, tremors, sadness, apathy and lack of concentration.

Tzintzun said the post-trauma symptoms do not mean people will develop a chronic problem. Usually, after time, the symptoms disappear.

In Hispanic culture, many people think psychologists are only for severely mentally ill or rich people. At the same time, health providers tend to have weak offerings and certainly provide little in Spanish.

But Tzintzun said it is important to pay attention to mental health.

Managing anxiety

The professionals at Catholic Charities’ El Programa Hispano offer strategies useful in the management of stress and anxiety caused by violent events.

1. Take care of yourself both physically and emotionally: Eat well and on time. Exercise and sleep well.

2. Take time to pray or meditate together as a family: Strengthen religious traditions and faith. Remain calm.

3. Create support groups: Meet with family and friends or with community or church groups to inform and support each other.

4. Have an action plan: To increase the feeling of security, organize your personal documents, have a power of attorney for your children and designate a trusted person to take charge if necessary.

5. Strengthen cultural identity: Edith Castillo of El Programa Hispano considers it vitally important to embrace one’s true essence, one’s origin, customs, traditions and values. In difficult times we have to prove who we are, she said, explaining that it is identity that makes us strong. “We have to always believe in something bigger than us,” she said. “We Hispanics stand out because we go forward no matter what. We are fighters. They will not find us on the street asking for help. Our people take care of our people. We are not left alone. We support each other.”

6. Go to aid organizations: In an emergency “there is an army of organizations and professionals advocating for the community,” Castillo explained. She cites Catholic Charities, El Programa Hispano, Central City Concern and Northwest Catholic Counseling Center.

How can parents help their children?

Elsa Tzintzun, a mental health counselor at El Programa Hispano in Gresham, described strategies to help children as violent attacks become more prevalent.

1. Dialogue is essential: It is important to devote a specific time to talk with your child. Have dinner together. That is a time to share family issues. Ask questions and discuss their emotions.

2. Reaffirm safety: Allow children and young people to express their fears and concerns. Make them feel that they are well and safe. The best way to combat fear is information. Caution them against becoming consumers of political rhetoric.

3. Limit television, internet and cellphone time: Spending too much time on the phone, accessing social networks or watching television to learn about killings is harmful to children and could cause anxiety and distress.

4. Observe changes in behavior: Tell your children that after events like shootings it is normal to feel different. Let them know that such feelings sometimes cause misunderstandings or create tensions among family or friends. Establish guidelines that help promote respect and tolerance in the family.

5. Strengthen value training: Castillo said a faith tradition can help in mental health crises. “I think that the family is the first school of life and if a child has a solid formation in faith and values, that helps them develop a stable base for managing their emotions and facing life,” she said. 

patriciam@elcentinela.org