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  June 10, 2021


Pulse shootings' lingering trauma must be public-health priority



June 12 marks five years since the horrific mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse Nightclub - the second deadliest incident of its kind in U.S. history. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared the day "Pulse Remembrance Day" in honor of the 49 killed in the massacre, but then eliminated nearly $1 million from a budget funding programs supporting the LGBTQ+ community.

Included in the cut was the state's share of the funding for the Orlando United Assistance Center, which Mayor Buddy Dyer established in the aftermath of the shooting to provide support for the grieving families and survivors of the attack who continue to struggle with both physical and emotional scars.

Research shows that mass shootings exert a psychological toll on their direct victims and members of the communities in which they took place. The National Center for PTSD has estimated that 28% of people who witness a mass shooting will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; another 33% will experience a stress disorder. Initial reactions to trauma can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness and numbness. More severe responses include sleep disorders, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. These mental-health impacts often last for years and impose significant costs on the society.

For these reasons, the law-enforcement response is just the first step in the enormous, costly response to a public mass shooting. Once security is restored, it falls on our elected officials to help communities recover from trauma. In the aftermath of recent mass shootings in Atlanta, Boulder, Indianapolis and San Jose, policymakers at all levels of government need to recognize and respond to the devastating and long-lasting impact of such events. Funding for mental health services for victims, first responders, and communities affected by these tragedies is urgently needed.

Dyer's trauma-informed efforts to meet the mental-health needs of the Pulse survivors should be seen as a national model. Within hours of the shooting, the mayor's office directed families and friends to a reunification center to await news of their loved ones.

Recognizing the needs of survivors and family members would be significant, Dyer met with representatives of the American Red Cross and FBI Victims Services Division to plan a Family Assistance Center (FAC). The FAC, established just days after the shooting, mobilized over 35 local organizations to provide services to 900 individuals ranging from psychological first-aid to legal aid, travel services, childcare, and funeral services. The FAC also offered hot meals and a quiet, secure place for family members to grieve away from the press.

The Orlando United Assistance Center (OUAC) opened two weeks later to provide ongoing support to survivors and family members as the FAC closed.

Most survivors of a public mass shooting show resilience over time. But others experience ongoing mental-health problems. Experts say that providing a place for collective healing does the most to strengthen families and communities during the recovery phase. That's why support for the OUAC is so critical.

For the past five years, the OUAC has offered a safe place for those affected by the Pulse shooting. The OUAC staffs victim advocates with access to a diverse network of mental-health providers across Central Florida to assist survivors with their recovery needs. In addition, advocates provide referrals for housing assistance, emergency financial assistance, employment, training, and educational opportunities. The OUAC has been a godsend to the Pulse survivors, but its services are in jeopardy after federal support ended.

Each year since the Pulse massacre, hundreds of thousands make the pilgrimage to the nondescript, gray building in Orlando where the shooting took place. This year, their tears and prayers need to be answered by a commitment from the state of Florida to fully fund the OUAC for the Pulse survivors and their families until its services are no longer needed.

Sarah C. Peck is director of #UnitedOnGuns, an initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law. James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy also at Northeastern University.

ACTUAL Orlando Sentinel link: