Three weeks after Devin P. Kelley fatally shot 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs and injured more than 20, counselors and other mental health professionals continue their work to help survivors and community members cope with trauma and grief.

“It’s really important to have mental health professionals who can help a person make sense [of] something that doesn’t make sense,” said Susan Mengden, licensed psychologist and president of the San Antonio Group Psychotherapy Society.

Within hours of learning of the mass shooting, trauma specialists from the Ecumenical Center of San Antonio made the 35-mile-drive to Sutherland Springs to provide immediate counseling and case management services to the community.

Mary Beth Fisk, director and chief executive officer at the Ecumenical Center, told the Rivard Report that licensed counselors and psychologists with the organization arrived on the Sunday of the shooting and “set up an outpost” to offer ongoing services to Sutherland Springs residents.

“It’s a small community where everyone knows one another and cares for one another,” Fisk said of the small town of around 600 residents. “This was a particularly traumatic situation. There was no warning and the manner in which individuals lost their lives is devastating.”

The victims of Kelley’s shooting rampage ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years old. A pregnant woman and her unborn child were killed in the attack.

Roses are placed over chairs in memory of parishioners of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
Roses rest atop chairs in memory of parishioners of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Ecumenical Center, along with volunteers with the American Red Cross, will remain in Sutherland Springs indefinitely to provide support services to the community, which includes working in cooperation with the FBI’s Victim Services Division to guide families through accessing resources including emergency assistance and crime victims compensation.

Bristel Minsker, regional communications director with the American Red Cross, said the organization will have volunteers present “for as long as they need.”

“In a tragedy like this, people process in different ways,” Minsker said. “We have to be here for the community when they are ready to come out in their own time.”

Two weeks after the shooting, the Camino Real Mental Health Authority, which represents Wilson County where Sutherland Springs is located, met with representatives from area organizations and community volunteers to organize a response to the mental health needs of affected residents.

Dorothy LePere, a representative with the American Group Psychotherapy Association and a Wilson County resident, told the Rivard Report earlier this month that while immediate counseling and case management are necessary, services to the community will have to be organized in a way that makes them sustainable long-term.

“You have to have that first response,” LePere said, explaining that when a traumatic situation occurs, people are often consumed by having to take care of immediate needs before they can begin processing their emotions. “When you lose someone, there is not just the funeral and burying of the dead, there is also dealing with relatives, legal paperwork, and people need a chance to take care of their business.”

LePere said the psychotherapy association has a structured trauma-response program which was developed after 9/11 and that the organization will provide group therapy services to residents of Sutherland Springs and surrounding communities as long as they are needed.

“You will see an increase in drinking, substance use, and an increase in symptoms if [people cannot] … make sense of what they experienced emotionally,” LePere said.

The University of Texas at San Antonio’s academy for crisis and trauma counseling is also working with Sutherland Springs officials to coordinate free counseling services, made possible by a $150,000 grant from Whataburger.

Thelma Duffey, chair of UTSA’s department of counseling, will lead the university’s ongoing effort. In 2012, Duffey and other UTSA faculty worked with counselors, teachers, and families affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Like Sutherland Springs, that shooting claimed 26 lives.

Services offered in the aftermath of a traumatic event aim to alleviate immediate suffering, but also to equip those affected with coping skills in order to thwart the risk of long-term mental health impacts.

“Untreated mental health disorders or poor coping skills that remain unaddressed throughout the lifetime influence behavior,” which highlights the importance of providing immediate mental health services to people who have experienced any traumatic or disruptive life event, Mengden said.

Mental health advocates, supported by a growing body of research, say a person’s perceptions, experiences, and ability to cope all contribute to how someone acts in any given situation, regardless of mental health status.

According to a 2016 report published by the American Psychiatric Association, people with serious mental illness only contribute about 3 percent to overall violent crime, and mass shootings by people with serious mental illness make up less than 1 percent of all gun-related homicides per year.

The report suggests that education and public health campaigns are needed to teach people how to acquire coping skills for anger and conflict resolution and report concerning behavior to authorities.

“Categorizing mental health as a reason that people commit heinous crimes in our country is oversimplifying [the problem],” Mengden said. “It continues the stigma that people with mental illness are unsafe, should be avoided, or are someone you should be scared of.”

Mengden told the Rivard Report that placing blame on mental health diagnoses is “uneducated” and diminishes the proven effectiveness of treatment, which often focuses on changing behavior and managing symptoms of a diagnosis.

Coping skills are important for all people, Mengden said, not just those with a mental health diagnosis.

For LePere, the tragedy in Sutherland Springs hit close to home as the small town is located a a mere 21 miles from where she lives. She told the Rivard Report that she has family members who experienced significant loss, and that the magnitude of the shooting continues to weigh heavily on the region.

26 white crosses stand in a field in Sutherland Springs memorializing the 26 who died in the church massacre on Sunday.
Twenty-six white crosses in a field in Sutherland Springs memorialize the lives lost in the church massacre. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“It’s not my pain, but I have seen the pain of my family, and I know that pain may be much worse for others,” LePere said. “It’s really hard. You read about these things and you never think they are going to happen.”

In the coming weeks, mental health service providers will work to determine how to best coordinate support services for all people affected.

“We are very respectful of the need that people have,” LePere said. “People are going to grieve for a very long time.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.