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Mental health strategies, resources available after UVA shooting 

Two people walk across the grass at UVA.
“The university grounds are their home. And this shooting really turns that presumptive worldview that ‘I am going to go to class’ — or ‘I'm going to go on a field trip, and I'm going to come home, and then tomorrow, I'm going to get up and go to class again’ — It turns it upside down when something like this happens,” said Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Following the shooting and subsequent lockdown at the University of Virginia, the school decided to cancel classes on Tuesday. On Wednesday, classes are planned to follow a normal schedule. The school has provided therapy dogs, and it continues to provide walk-in counseling appointments.

Robin Gurwitch, psychologist and professor at Duke University, said it’s normal for students and staff to have a physical and/or emotional reaction — like trouble sleeping or eating well, feeling depressed and irritable, withdrawing socially — to the shooting for at least a few days or weeks. Some students might even have intrusive thoughts or flashbacks.

“The university grounds are their home. And this shooting really turns that presumptive worldview that ‘I am going to go to class’ — or ‘I'm going to go on a field trip, and I'm going to come home, and then tomorrow, I'm going to get up and go to class again’ — It turns it upside down when something like this happens,” Gurwitch told VPM News. “So, our sense of safety is shaken.”

She said these reactions will be most intense for the students who witnessed the shooting and for those who were close to the victims, including members of the football team. And she said that could make it more difficult for them to grieve, simply because of the traumatic nature of the three students’ deaths.

“As I'm thinking about the loss, what I end up being overwhelmed with is the ‘how,’” Gurwitch said. “Sometimes, we tend to dwell on the circumstances, ‘What could have happened? What were the last moments like? What about accountability? Could it have been prevented?’ All of those thoughts play through our minds, and it makes it harder for us to get from the ‘how’ to the grief.”

She said while these feelings should eventually fade, the upcoming holidays could be a particularly difficult time for dealing with loss.

“Students should make sure that — even if they're staying on grounds — that they're not doing that alone, that there are others that they are going to have around them,” Gurwitch said. “And when they go home, to realize that they may need to take a little bit of extra time, they may be a little bit moody and irritable, and to recognize that that is pretty common, but it should get better in the next several weeks.”

Reaching out

Gurwitch encourages students to connect with their support systems: friends, roommates, those with whom they participate in clubs and athletics and counseling services.

“That is one of the best protective factors we can have,” Gurwitch said. “Sometimes, reaching out to friends or family to share how you're feeling is that first step to healing. Because if you just hold it in, you’re just stuffing more and more into a bottle that eventually — whether it is next week or next month or next year or two years from now — the bottle gets too full and it overflows. And then it becomes more overwhelming.”

She said students shouldn’t be surprised if they find the need to reach out to family and friends more often, and they also shouldn’t be surprised if parents and others concerned about them are also reaching out.

In fact, Gurwitch recommends parents take the first step to reach out to their college-aged kids first — regardless of whether their students have shared anything with them about how they’re feeling, and regardless of whether or not they attend UVA.

“It's extremely important to not avoid it; don't wait for your student to bring it up,” Gurwitch said. “If you've got seniors in high school that are thinking about going to college, have conversations with them about: What do they think about going away to school? What did they think about going to college? We need to take that breath and have the conversations.”

Some students might be more willing than others to open up about how they’re feeling. If students don’t share what’s on their minds, Gurwitch suggests parents can try another approach: asking about what their friends are saying about the recent events.

She hopes university professors are being patient and understanding, too — as the shooting could impact students’ attention and concentration levels in class for a while.

“So, hopefully, professors will be a little bit more appreciative of that. Extend any upcoming deadlines, postpone any upcoming exams,” she said.

Seeking help

Gurwitch said that fortunately, it’s unlikely most students at UVA will develop post-traumatic stress disorder because of the shooting. However, she said, some will. National statistics show that at least 30% of college students are diagnosed with some type of mental health condition every year: whether it’s anxiety, depression or PTSD.

“Even individuals who may not necessarily have a diagnosed mental health condition, something like this could certainly trigger something for them,” said Jamie Fisher, the executive director of the Central Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Fisher said if students — or students’ friends or family — notice a change in their sleeping or eating habits, or if they are sad or withdrawn for long periods of time or engaging in risky behavior or self harm, they should seek help.

She mentioned counseling resources available on  college campuses including UVA, as well as other community-based resources. For example, NAMI has 15 chapters across Virginia,  including one in Charlottesville. There are support groups and classes for individuals seeking help and for their family members — including  one in Richmond for young adults.

Additionally, there are crisis resources, including a suicide prevention hotline and another crisis hotline for other mental health related issues.

There’s also  Crisis Text Line, which Emma Snyder, of NAMI Central Virginia, recommended for college students.

“That is a really great platform, because I feel like sometimes — especially as a college student — you might feel uncomfortable calling a suicide hotline if you're just experiencing a mental health concern,” said Snyder. “And so, with Crisis Text Line, they're willing to talk to you, whether you're just talking about exams, college life in general or this tragedy … you're able to talk to somebody and get that out.”

Resources from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

Psychological First Aid

The NCTSN also has resources for responders on Psychological First Aid ( en español). PFA is an early intervention to support children, adolescents, adults and families impacted by these kinds of events. PFA Mobile and the PFA Wallet Card ( en español) can provide quick reminders. The PFA online training course is also available on the NCTSN Learning Center. PFA Handouts include:

From the National Mass Violence and Victimization Resource Center

Disaster helpline

SAMHSA has a Disaster Distress Helpline. Call or text (800) 985-5990 (for Spanish, press “2”) to be connected to a trained counselor 24/7/365.

Resources from the National Alliance on Mental Illness

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Dial or text 988 if you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or experiencing a mental health crisis and get connected to a trained crisis counselor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Crisis counselors listen empathetically and without judgment. Your crisis counselor will work to ensure that you feel safe, and help identify options and information about mental health services in your area.

988 is the new, shorter phone number that will make it easier for people to access mental health crisis services.

Crisis Text Line

Connect with a crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message. Text NAMI to 741-741.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.