For Dr. Gerard Lawson, Tuesday’s massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed by an 18-year-old gunman, brought back gut-wrenching memories of an all-too-familiar experience. As a licensed professional counselor and longtime Virginia Tech professor, Lawson recalls being locked down on his university’s campus on April 16, 2007, as a gunman went on a rampage throughout the school, killing 33 people.
“There is a feeling of powerlessness that keeps coming back up for people that have been down this road,” Lawson told Yahoo News.
Fifteen years after that firsthand experience with violent tragedy, he continues to help those affected — including survivors, their families and the immediate community — grieve through something that, he says, continues to haunt many of them to this day. It’s the trajectory of a healing process he suspects many members of the Uvalde community have begun to grapple with as well.
“There’s going to be an evolution in how they experience this,” Lawson said, which will vary for fellow students, teachers, first responders and community members.
With the focus of mental health often solely on the gunmen in mass shootings, mental health experts like Lawson believe that a greater focus on the community psyche could prove beneficial. Counseling specialist Deb Del Vecchio-Scully believes that, in lieu of gun control legislation from Congress, where Republican support has consistently failed to materialize, a proactive approach on the emotional well-being of communities would deliver tangible results.
“The more people who are able to access therapy, it’s going to change the whole environment of the community,” she told Yahoo News.
Del Vecchio-Scully was embedded in the Sandy Hook Elementary School as a staff support clinician for two years following the shooting in that school in Newtown, Ct., where on Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old gunman shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children who were 6 or 7 years old. She worked with the community for years following the shooting.
“There were days the door never stopped [opening],” she said. “It was like a revolving door of people who needed help.”
As an expert in crisis response, Del Vecchio-Scully saw firsthand the psychological trauma that school shootings unleash on a community and how it never fully goes away.
“The trauma of a school shooting has a very long shadow, and it’s complicated,” she said. But she’s optimistic about the recovery.
“While it’s a very painful, challenging road, there is hope,” she added. “There have been others, unfortunately, who have walked the path who can lend a hand for those who are just taking their first steps on it.”
Both Del Vecchio-Scully and Lawson say a trauma response is necessary because the entire community has experienced a life-changing tragedy. Depending on a person’s proximity to the event, the experts note that it’s important to work through the grief with effective ways to cope. This can include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), which is used to relieve psychological stress when a catastrophic event is almost too much to comprehend. Group gatherings, including sports, also help ease the trauma as the community has an opportunity to come together to heal.
“In Newtown, there were many efforts in the aftermath to make connections through community because we are traumatized as individuals, but we will heal as a community,” Del Vecchio-Sully said.
Then, looking toward the future, Lawson noted, victims and their support should consider what the next 12 to 24 months might look like and make plans accordingly.
After such an extreme tragedy, he said, there will be the immediate feelings of grief, loss and fear engulfing the Texas town. He predicts that the community will come together to share resources, but eventually those resources will subside and, before long, another tragedy will draw the focus away.
“There’s some disillusionment after a while when that honeymoon period sort of leads to ‘I've got so much still to do’ and ‘Are we truly safe?’” Lawson said.
Coincidentally, May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise awareness about those living with mental health issues and reduce the stigma attached to them. The families of the shooting victims and the Uvalde community have been thrust into an ordeal none of them asked for.
“The devastation is something that unless you've experienced, you cannot comprehend,” Del Vecchio-Scully said.
Without the help of politicians in Washington, Lawson suggested focusing on restorative justice practices in school.
“Instead of suspending a kid or expelling a student because of some behavior problems, we should work with that student to make amends with the victim that was involved,” he said. “The goal of that is for that student to stay in school, and part of that's important because that’s how they’ll learn.”
Having experienced the devastation of mass shootings both near and far, Del Vecchio-Scully wants Congress to do more.
The United States has more guns than people, according to a report by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. In fact, for every 100 American citizens, there are more than 120 guns.
“If the shooter did not have access to purchase those weapons, the mass shooting can’t occur,” Del Vecchio-Scully said. “It’s frustrating because I think we’ve avoided these issues around gun violence for decades, and it’s just an extraordinarily bad thing that it could happen again.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Brandon Bell/Getty Images, Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images