Tragic Deaths and Lasting Trauma Underscore Need for Strong Laws and Increased Access to Services

May 25, 2022

Statement from Debra L. Wentz, PhD, President and CEO

The New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Inc. (NJAMHAA) is devastated to hear about the horrific loss of 19 students and two teachers, and serious injuries to several more children and adults, from the recent shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, and sends deepest, heartfelt condolences to the families, friends and communities affected by these tragic deaths.

As we anticipate that the dreadful elementary-school shooting will be a focus in the news for quite some time, it is important to emphasize that the repeated focus on the incident in traditional and social media can exacerbate the anguish or cause secondary trauma in many children, as well as adults. Immediate and ongoing access to treatment and support services is essential for all individuals to cope with the various traumas they have endured and will likely continue to experience.

Equally critical is the need for strong legislation to prevent such dreadful violence from happening again. In 1999, following the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, NJAMHAA helped draft the Safe Schools and Communities Violence Prevention and Response Plan Act, which was sponsored by then-State Senator Barbara Buono. A pilot programwas established in a limited geographic area that mirrored the provisions of the Act, requiring the county superintendent of schools to employ a violence prevention specialist to develop and implement plans in collaboration with mental health specialists. Unfortunately, limited funding prevented this program from being expanded statewide, as had been the intention.

More recently, in January 2020, State Senator Anthony M. Bucco introduced S742, which would establish the Responsible School Violence Prevention, Preparation, and Protection (RSVP-3) Pilot Program. This initiative would require that law enforcement officers, mental health professionals, teachers and other school staff, and students be trained to identify and report behaviors that indicate potential threats in order to help prevent school violence.

The State Legislature must act immediately to both allocate funding for the Safe Schools and Communities Violence Prevention and Response Plan Act and pass the newer RSVP-3 bill with sufficient funding so it can be implemented throughout the state. New Jersey residents' lives are at risk and safety measures must be taken immediately.

In addition to preventing future violence, steps must be taken to help everyone cope with the tragic impact of violence. Individuals who are directly involved in violent situations, as well as many others who are indirectly impacted, are likely to experience depression and anxiety and, therefore, need immediate and ongoing mental health care.

Below are signs of trauma in children and adolescents, followed by guidelines for helping youth cope with trauma.

Signs of trauma include:

  • Experiencing grief several months after an incident: This timeframe is normal, as everyone grieves at a different pace, and intense reactions could happen after the numbness subsides. Typically, boys tend to react more quickly and with more irritation and anger. Girls may keep their feelings inside and take longer to react.
  • Becoming hyper-focused on mortality and death.
  • Becoming obsessed with and extremely worried about personal safety.
  • Sleeping or eating too much or too little.
  • Being angry or irritable.
  • Having difficulty separating from parents.
  • Exhibiting behaviors of regression, such as clinging, sucking thumbs and bed wetting.
  • Experiencing general fearfulness or new fears.
  • Behaving aggressively or impulsively.
  • Being passive and feeling helpless.
  • Having headaches or stomachaches.
  • Feeling lethargic.
  • Experiencing poor relationships with peers.
  • Refusing to go to school for an extended period of time.
  • Avoiding other places, as well as other people.
  • Experiencing night terrors.
  • Having panic attacks: Symptoms include difficulty breathing; pounding heart or tightening in the chest; trembling, shaking, loss of balance; dizziness, lightheadedness, feeling faint; chills or hot flashes; nausea, stomach pain or cramping.

Recognizing these signs can help begin discussions, especially with teens, who may not otherwise share that they experienced traumatic events.

How to help:

  • Make youth feel safe.
  • Act calmly.
  • Maintain routines as much as possible.
  • Help them enjoy themselves; provide positive distractions.
  • Be brief and honest in discussing traumatic incidents and encourage them to ask questions.
  • Look for natural openings to have discussions.
  • Prevent or limit exposure to news coverage: They may believe the situations are ongoing or repeating. If they know the events are temporary, they can recover more quickly.
  • Understand that different youth cope in different ways. Some might want to spend more time with friends and family members, while others may need more time alone.
  • Let youth know that their feelings are normal and that people express emotions in different ways. For example, some individuals may not cry even though they feel sad.
  • Listen well. Be understanding and do not lecture.
  • Help them relax with breathing exercises.
  • Know that it is okay to answer, "I don't know."
  • Give extra support at bedtime.
  • Encourage children to tell what happened or draw a picture about it. This presents additional opportunities to provide explanations and reassurance.
  • Share your feelings. This will help your children to not feel alone.
  • Make them feel helpful. However, do not give them too much responsibility, as that can increase their anxiety.

If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, there are many ways to reach out for help. The national suicide hotline is 800-273-8255. There are crisis services throughout New Jersey such as Screening Centers and Early Intervention Support Services Programs that you can contact directly. Here is the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services listing of services by county and by type. For referrals to children's and youths' crisis services, call PerformCare at 877-652-7624.

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