‘Still a lot of pain’: Four years after mass shooting, Texas community grapples

If you or someone you know is in crisis, dial “988” for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or text Home to Crisis Text Line to 741741. (The previous phone number, 800-273-8255, will continue to operate indefinitely.)

SANTA FE, Texas — In May 2018, after a high school shooting killed 10 people, the Santa Fe Resiliency Center opened at a church. Any resident can see a counselor, join a support group, and take part in a healing mandala coloring class, music therapy, or an emotional first aid workshop — all for free.

Today the center sits in a strip mall sandwiched between a seafood restaurant and empty storefronts. On a recent evening, instead of filling waiting rooms with patients, counselors watched clients on video from their offices. The center seems empty but, according to the therapists, the need is still there.

“There’s still a lot of pain,” said Jacqueline Potitt, a chatty therapist who runs the center. About 186 people meet with counselors each month, but he said the city of about 13,000 people probably needs the services more. “Many people don’t even realize they’ve had trauma.”

Recently, he said, the former high school student had thoughts of suicide. It was a “really close call,” he said. “We’re not out of the woods.”

Over the past four years, millions of dollars for mental health services have flooded the city, which feels remote despite being only 6 miles from the highway connecting Houston and Galveston. But the lesson of Santa Fe, a year in which the U.S. has averaged more than one mass shooting a day, is that even time and money can’t heal the deep, lingering grief that’s unique to such events. Santa Fe, like communities across the country, has changed forever

A photo shows the exterior of the Santa Fe Resiliency Center at a strip mall
Following a May 2018 high school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, the Santa Fe Resiliency Center launched its community outreach program at Aldergate United Methodist Church. The center now operates out of a strip mall, sandwiched between a seafood restaurant and empty storefronts.(Renuka Raisam/KHN)

Most locals agree that four years after the unimaginable, Santa Fe is still reeling from the 30 minutes between the 17-year-old gunman’s opening shots and his surrender to police. And they’re still grappling with everything that’s come — school board fights, City Hall turnover, the shooter’s delayed prosecution, even conflict over mental health proposals offered in response.

The lingering trauma here serves as a cautionary tale for the residents of Highland Park, Illinois; Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, New York — and everywhere else affected by such violence. Santa Fe’s experience reveals both the importance and challenges of rapidly and sustainably building mental health resources, particularly in communities where resources were lacking prior to the traumatic event.

Before the shooting, few therapists worked directly in Santa Fe. And like other small communities in rural America, it’s a place where many are suspicious of therapists, either not realizing they need help or simply choosing to ignore the pain. Four years later, Santa Fe is still mired in grief, just as federal funding that helped establish local mental health infrastructure has dwindled.

After the shooting, the state created the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, which includes a program that helps schools connect virtually with mental health specialists within two weeks. But that program has so far been rolled out to 40% of the state’s student population — and it didn’t reach Uvalde before the May school shooting.

“In light of Uvald, there is a desire to make these programs fully statewide,” said Dr. David Lackey, the consortium’s presiding officer and vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System.

In June, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott announced that Texas would spend $5 million on a resiliency center in Uvalde. That city also previously had some mental health services. Eight years ago, Congress began funding community behavioral health clinics, but they have been slow to spread across the country. A new federal effort aims to expand them further.

Communities that have experienced mass shootings illustrate the long-term reach of such trauma. In 2019, Jeremy Richman’s daughter, Avielle, took her own life, six years after she was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Later that year, Columbine shooting survivor Austin Eubanks died of a heroin overdose at age 37, two decades after he wounded and killed his best friend.

After a shooting, people would ideally access services through several routes: their primary care doctor, specialists in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, and even residential treatment programs, said Dr. Shaili Jain, a post-traumatic stress disorder specialist. Trauma at Stanford University. “What is the future going to be for kids who survive these massive traumatic events if they don’t get the mental health support they need?” she said.

After the Santa Fe shooting in 2018, “everyone was scrambling” to organize a mental health response, said Deidra Van Ness, whose daughter witnessed the attack. Santa Fe officials and mental health groups applied for grants through the federal Victims of Crime Act Fund, which collects money from criminal fines, forfeiture bonds and other federal court fees. The city set up a resilience center in a Methodist church that the Red Cross used for initial crisis operations because it was one of the few buildings with extensive community space.

Van Ness’ daughter, Isabel Lemans, spent 30 minutes locked in an art room supply closet before the gunman opened fire, killing several teenagers. Van Ness Lemanens, now 19, sent her to a teenage PTSD specialist in nearby Clear Lake City for nine months, which cost as much as $300 a month with insurance, before moving her to a resiliency center. There he was referred to Texas Children’s Hospital Trauma and Grief Center. His visits were free but his psychiatric medication cost about $20 a month.

Van Ness said her daughter would experience hours-long panic attacks at the school, where the shooting took place. He missed more than 100 days in his sophomore year. At one point, Van Ness said, she and her family were going to the resiliency center every day to attend family counseling and use other services.

Flo Rice, a substitute teacher injured in the Santa Fe shooting, was able to make immediate contact with a counselor at the Galveston Family Service Center who visited her one day in her hospital room. For years he called, texted and saw her for free. But rice changes forever. He can’t live near school or go to restaurants. He can’t sleep without medicine.

“PTSD, for me, it’s lifelong,” Rice said.

One photo shows Flo Rice sitting in a chair at home.
Flo Rice was a substitute teacher injured during the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting. He says he still suffers from PTSD.(Renuka Raisam/KHN)

According to the governor’s office, the state gave $7 million to service providers, cities and school districts through federal crime victims’ funds in response to the shooting. Still, the amount has dwindled each year, with some groups no longer receiving funding, according to state records.

Santa Fe Mayor Bill Pittman said the city doesn’t have the budget to fund such programs.

Greg Hanshaw, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the lack of resources is representative of the state’s larger mental health care gap. Unlike most states, Texas has not expanded eligibility for Medicaid, the federal-state program for low-income Americans that is the nation’s single-largest payer of mental health services. And the state, like many others, has a severe shortage of mental health care workers. According to KFF, more than half of Texas’ population lives in areas with a shortage of mental health care professionals.

The Santa Fe community is torn between forgetfulness and grief. The memories of the eight students and two teachers who were killed are intertwined in this city. An 8-foot tall empty aluminum chair stands in front of the high school. Ten white crosses are planted in the grass next to the Maranatha Christian Center. Green-and-black benches made of recycled plastic lids sit in the library and therapeutic garden behind City Hall.

According to Potitt, the long-term psychological toll is also visible. Many students leave for college but return home after a year. The marriage broke up. Children turning to alcohol or drugs.

“The city is still very angry,” said Mandy Jordan, whose son has life guilt because he was late to school the day of the shooting. He and his family eventually moved away from Santa Fe. “It’s almost in the air.”

So far, however, there have been no suicides linked to the shooting. “It’s by the grace of God that didn’t happen,” Potitt said.

A photo of Reagan Gaona's wrist shows a black and gray rose tattoo with a date next to it: May 18, 2018.
Reagan Gaona’s rose tattoo includes the date of the May 18, 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School. Among the dead was her boyfriend Chris Stone.(Renuka Raisam/KHN)

Regan Gaona, 20, credits a therapist with helping save her life. Gaona was finishing her sophomore year when her boyfriend Chris Stone was killed at school. It took three therapists to find the right fit. Now, on one side of Gawna’s left arm, she has a tattoo of a rose with the date of the shooting, May 18, 2018, and on the other side a butterfly with a semicolon, signifying mental health awareness and suicide prevention. It represents that “I’m flying out of my depression and I’m growing my wings,” she said. “That I am beautiful.”

Gaona has regular panic attacks and anxiety-related muscle spasms. She attended college in Kansas for a year on a softball scholarship before returning to the area. He feels better, but he says he “feels empty.”

The shooting also derailed Layman’s plans. She intended to attend college on a bowling scholarship to study interior design.

But PTSD has been a major obstacle. He suffers from short-term memory loss. When she went to orientation at a junior college, she felt unsafe after hearing about Texas’ open-carry policy on campus. He wants to go — and study psychology — but for now, he’s working as an assistant manager at Sonic, a fast-food restaurant.

Van Ness said her daughter died that day. Her daughter is now trying to figure out who she is.

“We are just as proud of his progress as we would have been of any decision he made,” Van Ness said.

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