As the community reels from anger, shock, fear and grief following Thursday’s theater shootings that killed two vibrant women and injured nine other people, some residents may be having a harder time coping with those feelings than others.
The city set up a family information center Sunday afternoon in the old Whitney bank building, 911 Lee Ave. in downtown Lafayette, where community members can talk about their feelings with counselors.
Phone lines to the center opened at 8 a.m. Sunday, and by 8:12 a.m., the first call was logged. Some of the calls were for basic information such as the location and hours of the center, but requests also were made for mental health services.
“That gives me reassurance that this is necessary,” said Cydra Wingerter, assistant to City-Parish President Joey Durel.
At the family information center, people may meet with a crisis professional one-on-one or in a group setting with their friends and/or family members.
The counseling services are free and offered by local mental health professionals and funded by the city’s insurance policy.
Disaster Management International, a firm that specializes in crisis response, helped set up the center and will continue to provide assistance to the city as part of the city’s insurance policy, Wingerter said. As part of its services, the firm also assists with logistics, communications and other needs related to providing emergency services support. For instance, one of the firm’s staff members is assisting police with requests for information about Thursday’s shooting from not only local but also the national and international media who have converged on the city to provide news coverage, Wingerter said.
“They’re with us every step of the way as we begin the recovery and healing process,” she said of the firm’s services.
The firm is coordinating with the Acadiana Area Human Services District to provide counselors and services to those in need.
“We know that early intervention is key to preventing the need for crisis intervention later on,” Wingerter said.
The center is open to anyone who is finding it difficult to process and understand Thursday’s tragedy or who wants to talk out what they’re feeling with a counselor. Those who may need assistance include first responders, family and friends of those lost and injured, and those with existing mental health conditions, officials said Sunday.
“Lots of times, people want to know if what they’re experiencing is normal,” said Yancey Mire, a licensed professional counselor and director of behavioral health for the Acadiana Area Human Services District.
Some questions typically asked are whether loss of sleep or appetite are normal, he added.
“Grief reactions are typical, and strange and illogical responses are also typical,” he said.
Brief reactions — two to three days — is normal, but experiencing those same reactions for two to three months is not normal, Mire said.
He explained that counselors will help people understand whether “what you’re going through is typical grief or stress reaction or is it serious enough to warrant further evaluation,” he said.
He encouraged anyone who feels “like they’re experiencing something they can’t understand” and whose support system of friends and family isn’t helping like it typically does to seek assistance through the center.
Sometimes it’s difficult for adults to find the words to express their grief and anger following a traumatic event like Thursday’s mass shooting, and children face the same challenge, said Tiffany Speer Capps, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in counseling children and teens.
Capps provided tips on how parents can talk with their children about Thursday’s tragedy.
“Remain calm, but also allow your children to see some of your emotions,” she suggested. “That’s going to help them to normalize, that it’s OK to feel emotions.”
Capps met with children Friday afternoon to talk out their feelings about the shooting and encouraged the children to express their feelings through art. The art is an outlet for the children to share how they feel when they may not have the language to express those emotions, Capps said.
“Words that the children used is that they feel scattered,” she said. “We did some art therapy and they wrote that they feel scattered, worried, scared, angry. I think for parents, what I find in my classes is that parents want to shut that down and say, ‘Hush, it’ll be OK,’ but allowing and saying, ‘It’s OK if you feel that way right now. We’re all in shock,’ and to normalize those feelings for them.
“If you have a faith background, it’s a great opportunity to open up prayer in the family. Even if you don’t have a faith background, open up a chance to create a sense of calm. I think the most important thing is to try to remain calm.”
Parents should also work to control rumors, Capps advised. With social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy for children, especially teens, to have access to the latest information — even false information, which could create more anxiety for children, she said.
“Extinguish any rumors with facts. It’s important for parents to say, ‘I heard that, too, but we can’t rely on things we see on the Internet.’ Fill in the blanks for them with the facts,” Capps said.
It also will help if parents limit television and Internet time following the traumatic event.
“One thing they can do to reduce the sense of chaos in the household is by limiting the amount of TV that’s on. Especially initially after the incident, I know families let TV roll and stay on Facebook. I’d really cut that down considerably initially after the event, at least a week. This is especially for children because exposure or overexposure could lead to post-traumatic stress. They’ll be retraumatized over and over again.”
She also suggested that parents not “overtalk” about the traumatic event.
“If children continue to want to talk more and you’re not really sure what to do or go about handling it, I would access a mental health professional. If you see your child is having some anxiety symptoms, like not eating, sleeping or wanting to go places or having attachment issues, I’d also suggest seeking a mental health professional.”
Capps said this is also a good time for families to discuss a family plan for emergencies or create a code word they could text each other if they’re in trouble.
Capps was a guest speaker at an ecumenical prayer service held Sunday evening at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and spoke about how the community can find peace and make sense of suffering.
On Friday afternoon, hours after learning the names of the dead and the victims, Capps admitted that even she wasn’t sure how she’d deliver that message to the expected crowd.
“I’m not there yet,” Capps said. “I’m still in shock myself. It’s going to be a tribute to those who lost their lives and who were injured.”
Capps said she relies on her own faith and hopes others can find peace where she does.
“When we feel hopeless, we have to turn to the only thing that gives us hope and that’s God,” Capps said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.