For some, it may be a pervasive sense of hyper-vigilance, anxiety, being on edge and on high alert, especially when going into public spaces. Others may be irritable and overwhelmed by day-to-day life. For others, sadness, a sense of loss and anger are all a part of it. As is avoidance — checking out, using more substances, binge-watching TV — and disconnecting — withdrawing from others and turning inwards.
For me, it was the constant cacophony of sirens in my head several nights in a row, lulling me to sleep one minute, startling me awake the next. The image, on repeat in my mind’s eye, of red and blue lights circling on the office wall through the windows. Then, once sleep became accessible, there was the lack of motivation, a sense of helplessness and even guilt for feeling so impacted despite the fact I wasn’t at King Soopers that day.
“All of that is part of this picture of a community trauma response,” says Janine D’Anniballe, director of trauma services at Mental Health Partners (MHP). “I think it is important to keep reminding the community that we don’t need to be over this. … I think we need to remember that the trauma impact lingers long after it’s out of the headline.”
It’s been six weeks since the shooting in the grocery store on Table Mesa; while the event has (mostly) left the national conversation and it may seem like most people have moved on, the traumatic impacts of that day are still rippling throughout the Boulder community. And it’s expected to continue in the months, even years to come, as the community processes and continues to heal.
“Truly after a crisis event, it’s usually three weeks to six weeks later that it actually starts to occur to people what even happened,” says Amie Leigh, director of public health initiatives at Somatic Experiencing Institute (SEI). Formerly the SE Trauma Institute, SEI is a Boulder-based nonprofit that trains people in trauma resolution methods in 39 countries, with Leigh specifically focusing on disasters, crises and catastrophes.
Directly after an incident like the shooting at King Soopers, she says, the community tends to freeze in shock for a while, before entering a period of survival energy of either fight or flight. But as the national conversation and the flurry of news covering the event dies down, “What’s left in the wake,” she says, “is all the survivors in the community start to go into a bewilderment of how important is this event? Does the world care? Do we care? What does our care look like now?” Leigh says. “[This] period is when the most strength can come in and the community makes meaning, gets together in a sense of growth, not just in a sense of anger, and they move through that grief a little bit together.”
Community memorials and gathering places are one way to heal, Leigh says, places like the fence covered in flowers outside the store that allow people to connect with each other. Likewise, the Boulder Strong Resource Center on the second floor of the Chase Bank at the Table Mesa Shopping Center has also been established. Partnering with Kroger, which owns King Soopers, MHP developed the Center to provide immediate crisis counseling and other services to store associates, their families and shoppers who were at the store that day, as well as for employees and families of the approximately 50 other stores in the shopping center. But in the weeks since, the Center has expanded to serve the entire community.
In the first three weeks of April, 273 people came through the Center for support of some kind, says Kevin Braney, the lead of MHP’s incident command team.
“With the other shootings that have occurred in Colorado, it’s the mental health centers that end up carrying this long-term,” he says. “What we’re hearing from [those] that have been through this is: This is not a marathon, it’s an ultra-marathon.”
In Aurora, for example, the Aurora Mental Health Center (AuMHC) opened the Aurora Strong Resilience Center in 2013, a year after the Aurora Theater shooting (the delay due primarily to funding) and didn’t close it until 2019.
“The mental health part of the response goes on for years as people walk their different paths towards their healing,” says Kirsten Anderson, vice president of clinical operations and disaster coordinator at AuMHC. “One thing we’ve been stressing a lot is how long the mental health needs go on and how that doesn’t go away in a year or two. But people will continue to surface many years down the road and really need to get some therapeutic support for what they’re going through.”
While it was open, the Resilience Center created a space for community gathering, for people who probably didn’t know each other before the shooting, but now had a common experience they were seeking to understand and process. It was also open to the entire community, as the ripple effects of the trauma go well beyond people who were at the theater that night, or were somehow peripherally connected to victims, survivors or the shooter.
The same goes for the Boulder community, whether or not people were at the King Soopers on March 22.
“This trauma is going to extend well beyond the people that were in the store that day,” Braney says. “We think of it in terms of those concentric circles that just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger… And I would say in the last week or so, about 60% of the people that have been coming through the center have been [other South Boulder] community members.”
Braney, D’Anniballe and Leigh all expect the need for such resources within the community to continue. In the immediate aftermath, SEI partnered with Boulder-based Therapy Aid, a nonprofit birthed out of the pandemic to offer free and low-cost counseling to essential workers, to provide free crises counseling for the community. SEI also held a virtual crisis counseling training session with 47 local therapists, and Therapy Aid continues to facilitate four free sessions of counseling for anyone in the community who needs it.
And the Boulder Strong Resource Center plans to remain open, offering free resources and mental health support, as long as the community deems it necessary,
“We can expect the healing to be non-linear,” D’Anniballe says. “So some days we feel OK and resourced and grounded as a community. And then we, particularly around trigger events of the trauma, start to feel like, Oh my goodness, the trauma is happening all over again.”
And there’s always the possibility for trigger events: another mass shooting, updates on the criminal case involving the shooter, the start of a trial, anniversaries of the event or in the victims’ lives. In the days, weeks and months ahead, D’Anniballe encourages us as a community to listen to each other and validate what others are going through, being careful not to minimize another person’s experience or provide quick fixes that may actually do more harm than good.
“There’s also a large number of people out there who are suffering in ways that they may not even be aware of just yet. Folks who might be aggravated or frustrated and not clear why,” Braney adds. “What we keep saying over and over here is: Everyone’s going to be on their own journey to heal from this, and we’re going to be with them and support them through it. And when people are ready to talk, they will. And if they’re not, we’ll be there for them when they are.”