Vegas Strong: Survivors talk mental health and healing in shooting's aftermath
Nothing prepares anyone – survivors, first responders, community members – for dealing with the intense emotions that follow a mass shooting. The mental trauma was immediate for those at the Route 91 Harvest music festival.
Craig Nyman wasn’t hit by any of the more than 1,000 rounds fired that day. But he was in a state of shock for a couple of weeks.
“I'm not sure anything that I was doing or saying was really matching up making sense,” he remembers.
In the hours and days after the shooting, therapists around Las Vegas rose to the occasion. They understood that thousands of people were dealing with serious mental wounds.
“One of my friends, her therapist offered to see people who had survived Route 91 and go through trauma therapy sessions at no cost,” Nyman says. “That one gesture by a friend and by a therapist saved my life.”
Sometimes the hardest part of starting therapy is recognizing when it’s needed.
Kimberly King’s partner was shot in the chest, and she struggled with getting help at first.
“Growing up, I was taught, to just, like, brush it off, put everything under the rug," she says. "You don't go and tell your problems to someone, you know, you dealt with them.”
King started going to therapy a few years after the shooting, when she saw the progress her now-husband Billy King was making in his sessions.
“I just learned that it does help, even if it's not a mass shooting we go through, but for anything," she says. "We have trauma of situations when we're children and don't even realize that it's definitely shaped us as adults.”
Today, there’s an ongoing national conversation about providing mental health services for police officers. Many like retired Las Vegas police Lt. Ray Spencer expect they will see and experience horrific things. But they may be slow to get help because they still have a job to do, a crime to investigate, a community to protect.
“I'm the incident commander to the largest mass shooting in U.S. history,” Spencer says. “And you can't really put the type of stress that puts on someone, especially when you're in a predicament when there's not much you can do other than try to save lives.”
Spencer eventually did open up, to a mental health professional and other officers. He made that decision in 2019, after giving a presentation about the shooting at a police conference.
“I realized talking about it, and in explaining what I went through and what I saw out there that day, kind of gives officers a different perspective, and I think it was beneficial," he says. "It's helped me talk about it as well. Here we are five years later. And, you know, it's still like it was yesterday to me.”
Though more than 2 million people live in the Las Vegas valley, it can sometimes feel like a small town. That was especially true in the aftermath of the shooting. Most people know someone who was either at the concert, a first responder, or a medical professional who treated victims.
Tennille Pereira is director of the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, an organization created in response to the tragedy. She says it’s normal for an entire community to grieve after a mass shooting – even those who aren’t directly affected.
“All of us kind of put our needs or maybe our processing on the backburner, because our trauma wasn't as bad, right? There’s different degrees of trauma, but all trauma needs to be kind of dealt with and processed, or it can have a negative consequences in our life," she says.
Pereira says healing will look different for everyone impacted by the shootings. But five years later, she’s seeing a lot of hope. She recently met with some survivors in the Healing Garden, a place where people can quietly reflect on the tragedy and honor those who were lost.
“When they first went there, they couldn't go when other people were there, it was such an emotional experience, and it was so much grief, and their feelings were just very overwhelming," she says.
Now, Pereira says the survivors are like caretakers of the garden, which was built just a few days after the shooting. There is a tree planted for each victim, with mementos and thoughtful art pieces surrounding them.
“They see now when they look around, and they're there, it's just healing, and they just feel good and positive and, and want to just share their healing with others that are there," she says.
Need help? The Las Vegas Resiliency Center has two hotlines. Around Las Vegas it’s (702) 455-2433 and outside Nevada, it’s (833) 299.2433.
Part 3 of Vegas Strong highlights the advocacy work of those affected by the shootings.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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