After Highland Park Mass Shooting, ‘People are Feeling Lots of Different Things.’ Help Is Available, Clinicians Say

Video: Orson Morrison, director of DePaul University's Family and Community Services clinic; and Candice Norcott, a clinical psychologist and specialist in trauma-informed mental health services for adolescents and adults at UChicago Medicine join “Chicago Tonight” to discuss what Highland Park residents may be feeling, and how to help process it. (Produced by Paul Caine)

Highland Park’s Fourth of July Parade turned into a tragedy Monday as a gunman opened fire on the celebrations, leaving seven dead and at least 30 injured.

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That sudden shift from a celebratory mood to one of imminent danger can make it difficult for people to process their emotions in the aftermath. Area clinicians say feelings of guilt and traumatic flashbacks are normal responses but those impacted should not hesitate to reach out for help. 

“This was supposed to be a joyous, celebratory occasion and now it’s tinged with this very ugly, traumatic memory for them,” said Orson Morrison, director of DePaul Family and Community Services and a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively with children and families impacted by trauma, including community violence. “People are feeling a lot of different things at the moment.”

Common symptoms people may be experiencing include irritability, anxiety, depression, being agitated or hypervigilant about their surroundings or safety.

“If you were someone who was there during the parade and saw things happening, you may have flashbacks – traumatic memories playing over and over again in your mind,” Morrison said. “You may also feel a sense of guilt or think, ‘What could I have done?’ if you were someone who lost a neighbor or a friend.”

These feelings are normal, says Sheehan Fisher, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, and they shouldn’t be ignored.  

“When it comes to so many other parts of health, people are not shy about going to a doctor, but when it comes to mental health people view it as (something) they should be strong enough to manage it on their own,” Fisher said. “(People) should not tough it out.”

Fisher and Morrison advise people connect with community members, family and friends. “We need each other more than ever in navigating and healing through these sorts of horrific events,” Morrison said.

If symptoms persist for weeks and begin to interfere with daily life, people should seek professional help.

“Most people should expect to see decreasing intensity in symptoms from a pretty intense state after two to three weeks,” said Dr. Royce Lee, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at the University of Chicago. “If those symptoms are not getting better, it’s a good reason to reach out for help.”

People should also seek professional help if they’re feeling numb, withdrawing from relationships or are avoiding exposures to cues or reminders of the event, such as avoiding crowds, public events or loud noises, according to Lee.

Avoidance behavior can lead to more chronic anxiety, he says. “If avoidance is present, treatment is necessary because none of us are able to make ourselves stop avoiding things we’re motivated to avoid.”

As parents navigate their own experiences and emotions in the aftermath of the mass shooting, they should also be monitoring their children for changes in their disposition.

“Kids may not have the language to fully express what they’re feeling,” said Fisher.

Signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in children include irritability, anger, clinginess, sleep disturbances, flashbacks and regression to early stages in development. “Depression and anxiety in children often doesn’t present as it does in adults  – withdrawn or sad, affect,” said Morrison. “Kids get more irritable and cranky.”

If a child’s symptoms begin to interfere with their day-to-day activities or they start avoiding certain activities, places or their friends, parents should seek professional help. “At the very least, seek an evaluation to see if they may benefit from speaking with someone on a professional basis,” Morrison said.

While parents may instinctually want to shield their children from details of the tragedy, clinicians encourage honest conversations.

“Depending on the age of the child, it’s important to not ignore it,” said Fisher. “We don’t want to upset them, but they are aware of what’s going on, and they’re going to talk to their friends about it so it’s better to confront it head on.”

Rather than sharing everything you know about the situation, start by asking a child what they know and what questions they have.

“We don’t want to dump on them all of the information that we as adults are carrying,” said Morrison. “We want this conversation in some ways to be child-led so that they feel a bit more in control of the conversation.”

Morrison also advises parents and caregivers assess whether they are ready to lead such a conversation. “We are also grieving and experiencing various forms of trauma symptoms, so we want to be mindful first of what we’re bringing into those conversations,” he said.

Not feeling up for the task? Ask a friend or neighbor to lead the conversation.

“We don’t want our emotions to exacerbate or intensify the emotions that our kids may be feeling,” Morrison said. “We want to reassure children that we as adults are going to do whatever we can in our power to keep them safe and to work toward ending these sorts of crimes.”

The federal government recently compiled a list of resources for helping youth cope following a mass shooting.

Note: This story was originally published July 5, it has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight” conversation. 

Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz (773) 509-5452  [email protected]

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