Counselors offer advice for families dealing with trauma after Aztec shooting
Counselors say families should come together, return to normal routines and limit exposure to news
FARMINGTON — After the Aztec High School shooting on Dec. 7, mental health professionals opened their doors and visited campuses to provide support for families who are dealing with the trauma of what happened.
Local mental health professionals say both parents and students have been dealing with the impact of the school shooting.
"There's always the fear that this could happen again," said Dr. Eric Stoltzfus, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at San Juan Health Partners.
He said that school shootings are a rare occurrence and he encouraged families to take a break from watching the news. Stoltzfus said families should do normal activities together and parents should foster a sense of security and safety.
At the same time, Dr. Margie Trujillo, a licensed professional clinical counselor at San Juan Health Partners, said parents could also be experiencing grief, fear and panic. She said parents need to take care of themselves.
"Parents have got to stay on top of it in terms of their own well-being," Trujillo said. "This is not easy under any circumstances."
Trujillo said parents do not need to shield their children from the emotions they are feeling. She said parents can cry with their children.
She encouraged families to come together and talk about their feelings and their thoughts regarding the shooting. Trujillo said it is important for parents to ask their children what they know about the shooting and correct misconceptions in a way that does not tell the children they are wrong. She said to validate emotions and avoid graphic details when discussing the shooting.
Trujillo said families should emphasize that the schools are a safe place and that the teachers and staff will do whatever they can to protect the students. She said counselors are available at the schools to help the students process what happened.
"This has been handled beautifully in this community," she said.
Trujillo said vigils, gatherings and support on social media promote a sense of community that the students need right now.
Rick Quevedo, the CEO of Desert View Family Counseling and the Children Youth and Families Department designee for the community mental health response, offered several tips for helping children recovering from a traumatic event:
- Love them.
- Reassure them the event was not their fault.
- Let them know you will do your best to take care of them and keep them safe.
- It's okay to be upset.
- Listen to them and let them express themselves.
- Don't argue with their feelings.
- Be with them as much as possible.
- Maintain a normal routine.
- Limit their exposure to the news.
- Emphasize that the schools are safe.
Parents should also watch for symptoms of anxiety or depression. Stoltzfus said trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite or changes in sleep patterns can be signs of anxiety or depression. He said if those symptoms last for more than a few weeks parents should seek help. He said pediatricians, pastors or counselors can provide help.
Quevedo said several organizations have offered counseling services including:
- Presbyterian Medical Services, 505-564-4804
- Cottonwood Clinical Services, 505-564-3733
- Desert View Family Counseling, 505-326-7878
- Choices Counseling, 505-325-5321
Quevedo said a team of mental health professionals met students, school staff, parents and family members at McGee Park when the students were bused there a few hours after the shooting.
Therapy dogs attended schools to help with the students. Counselors have also been available in the community and assisting the residents of Kinteel Dormitory.
The day after the shooting, 86 students met with 63 mental health specialists at C.V. Koogler Middle School, Quevedo said. On Tuesday, more than 350 students at the elementary schools and middle school met with counselors, according to Quevedo.
Two students from Aztec High School in Aztec, New Mexico, describe the chaotic scene at the school when a gunman opened fire Thursday morning, December 7, 2017. One student's cousin was killed in the shooting.Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
Mental health professionals will be at Aztec High School on Monday and will remain there until the students leave for winter break. Counselors will also be at the schools when the students return after winter break.
Quevedo said Governor Susana Martinez enabled the district to bring in mental health professionals from other parts of the state to meet the need for counseling and to give respite to local providers who had been helping since they received news of the incident.
Counseling services were also provided at Navajo Nation chapter houses and through Indian Health Services for the Kinteel Dormitory students. The dormitory students will return on Sunday.
"Until you're in the middle of this kind of community tragedy you have no idea the impact," Quevedo said.
He praised the school district's response, highlighting the efforts of the principal, superintendent, assistant superintendent and maintenance department's director, as well as county response by the office of emergency management.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.