Researcher from El Paso shares information on Aug. 3 collective trauma

El Paso News

FILE – In this Aug. 12, 2019 photo, mourners visit the makeshift memorial near the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where 22 people were killed in a mass shooting. Officials in the border city are unveiling a garden meant to bring healing two years after a gunman targeting Latinos opened fire, ultimately killing 23 people in an attack that stunned the U.S. and Mexico. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The effect of the Aug. 3 mass shooting continues to resonate throughout the Borderland as researchers, lawmakers and residents work through the trauma.

“I’ve been anticipating this day for a few weeks and I hope everyone is taking care of themselves,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) told KTSM 9 News. “It was a very profound tragedy.”

A team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin has been working to understand the effect of the tragedy on the community. 

The paper, entitled Mass shootings, Psychological Impact, and Community Engagement: Lessons from El Paso and will be presented at the Texas Psychological Association conference on Nov. 11.

Charity Vizcaino and Dea Radovancevic, two doctoral students in Counseling Psychology at UT Austin have been working on the research, led by Dr. Ricardo Ainslie. 

Vizcaino, is an El Paso native.

The research team has conducted extensive research on the effect that the Aug. 3 shooting had on the Borderland, as well as conducted a comprehensive analysis of the existing data on mass shootings.

KTSM did a Q&A with the researchers about what their data means for the future of collective grief and healing for El Paso.

What are some of the most important things to know about collective trauma as a result of the Aug. 3 mass shooting?

Collective trauma refers to the ways in which communities process, respond to and heal from mass shootings, such as the one that took place at the Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019, rather than viewing them through an individual lens.

Certain members of the community may feel more compelled to come together in solidarity following a traumatic event, while others may lean toward more isolation as a response to anger, fear or shame. Individuals may also feel their identities are threatened or there may be confusion as to why harm was done to innocent victims in the first place.

Collective trauma occurs because the entire city was profoundly affected by what took place. While individuals were shot, the presumed perpetrator’s manifesto made it clear that his primary target was the Latinx community. The shooting had a deep impact on the victim’s families, the Latinx community as a whole and the city more generally.

How can the community and individuals continue to heal?

Just as symptoms can vary, so can healing strategies. We have found that many members of the community found solace in coming together to help aid others in the community, while some members reached out to crisis hotlines in El Paso in the following days. Memorializing the victims, having shared experiences in the community and having an outlet to express thoughts/feelings about the event are all ways in which individuals and the community begin to heal and continue in their efforts to heal.  Acts of remembering and memorializing are vital to healing for both individuals and communities.

What is important to understand about this kind of trauma?

One of the biggest psychological impacts we saw was a feeling of loss of safety. Many citizens viewed El Paso as a safe harbor and place that was warm, welcoming and home. The mass shooting shattered many individuals’ sense of safety. The realization that bad things can happen in a safe place can be devastating and cause people to question the world as they know it. 

There are many risk factors that can increase someone’s likelihood of having negative mental health outcomes, one of these is being a racial or ethnic minority. Since the mass shooting in El Paso was also a hate crime, this risk factor is important to consider. These symptoms vary in intensity and often present in multiple ways. Some of the symptoms of PTSD include difficulty concentrating, nightmares, flashbacks of the event, avoidance of places or things that trigger memories, irritability and guilt. 

Are there any interesting findings from your research you can share?

Communities found ways to preserve and honor the memories of the victims and the historical impact of the shooting on the community. Memorialization has manifested in various ways, including the planting of trees to honor the loss of the victims, murals, monetary donations and the abundance of candles and bouquets along the Walmart fence. These rituals were intended not only to honor the community, but also to help individuals to continue to overcome the significant grief and loss that they experienced. 

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