In Uvalde, Latinos worry about enduring toll of school shooting on mental health

Guadalupe Leija’s 8-year-old son Samuel was finishing his second year at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, when it became the site of one of the deadliest school shootings on record. American.

The father rushed to his son’s school after learning of the shooting on Tuesday. Law enforcement was already on the scene, but that didn’t stop Leija from feeling helpless.

Samuel survived. The boy was in a different building from the one a gunman entered and killed 19 children and two teachers.

Three days later, the CE2 student has yet to speak about what happened that day.

Leija described Samuel as “the kind of kid who wants to know everything. But to this day he hasn’t asked what happened or what’s going on,” he told NBC News on Thursday. afternoon.

To deal with the immediate and profound sense of loss, Leija and many others in their predominantly Hispanic town reached out to each other and attended vigils to express their grief and condolences to families who lost loved ones. loved ones and offer support to each other.

A woman lights a candle in front of a makeshift memorial outside the Uvalde County Courthouse in Uvalde, Texas on May 26, 2022. Chandan Khanna / AFP-Getty Images

But concerns about the long-term mental health toll a tragedy of this magnitude can take on affected Latino families are emerging at a time when “the whole town of Uvalde is heartbroken,” Leija said. , who is Mexican American.

Uvalde Behavioral Health, part of the South Texas Rural Health Services Network, is one of the city’s mental health sites that offers grief counseling services to shooting survivors and relatives of the victims.

“There is no shame in asking for help”

“Right now they are feeling grief, but soon they will be feeling anger,” Myrta Garcia, CEO of South Texas Rural Health Services, told NBC News. “They’re going to feel angry because of what happened.”

“They’re going to feel aggrieved that their child is dead,” Garcia said of the parents who lost a child in the shooting. “We won’t be able to give them an answer because we don’t know the answer, but we can teach them how to cope so they can better understand what happened.”

Uvalde Behavioral Health is one of the few centers belonging to the National Health Service Corps, a subdivision of the Department of Health and Human Services made up of a network of health care providers working in underserved communities.

About 22% of Uvalde’s population is uninsured, a number consistent with the national number of Latinos who lack health coverage; the town of Uvalde is approximately 80% Hispanic, with most of them having Mexican American roots.

Nationally, the uninsured rate among Latinos (20%) is more than double that of non-Hispanic whites (8%), according to recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Although being uninsured can limit access to health care, community health centers such as the one run by South Texas Rural Health Services in Uvalde “often make all kinds of concessions if a patient deserves sanity,” Garcia said.

But perhaps more important is the work of de-stigmatizing mental health services in Latin American communities in need, especially those closely affected by the Uvalde school shooting, Garcia said.

“There is no shame in asking for help and seeking counseling or therapy,” she added.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said at a press conference Friday afternoon that anyone affected by the shooting would have access to free mental health services from public and private providers.

“When I say anyone, I mean the totality of everyone who lives in this community,” Abbott said. “We believe you would benefit from mental health care services.”

His remarks come about a month after he cut $211 million from the State Department, which oversees mental health programs.

According to the 2021 State of Mental Health in America report, Texas ranks last of the 50 states and the District of Columbia for overall access to mental health care.

The Community Health Development Center, another mental health site owned by the National Health Service Corps, said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that it was “mourning the loss of many of its family members in the massacre.”

“We pray for everyone as we map out a plan to meet the need for long-term grief counseling. We ask for your patience as we grieve and coordinate a united response to help our community,” the center said in the message.

While Leija does what he can to keep his young son as far away from all things shooting as possible, the father also knows his child will eventually ask him questions.

According to Garcia, Leija’s son and other children who survived the shooting may be in shock and unable to articulate the experience for some time.

“What they saw was not normal. What they heard was not normal,” Garcia said. “That’s where we literally have to hug them, pray for them, serve them, encourage them, love them.”

In the meantime, Leija said he and his wife are preparing for when their son can finally talk about what he went through that day.

“Whenever the time comes, we’ll be ready for it,” Leija said. “It’s going to take some time before everything gets back to normal. … It will be long.

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Mike Hixenbaugh and Corky Siemaszko contributed.

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