By Kay Broderick
Thousands of people were at Riverfront Park in Harrisburg on July 4, celebrating the holiday and waiting for the traditional fireworks display. Then panic struck.
People heard a shout of “gun!” That was followed by what sounded like gun shots causing terror and people to run. In the confusion some people were separated from family and friends.
The separations were brief, the city reported no injuries and thankfully there was no shooting. The impact, however, of such an experience is intense and traumatic.
We hear about mass shootings so often in our country that it isn’t surprising people will be filled with fear when they hear that someone may have a gun and then what sounds like gunshots. I worry in particular about what incidents like this – let alone when spectators witness a real shooting — mean for our children. This is one more reason why we are facing a youth mental health crisis in our country.
At Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg (JFS) we are at the center of the issue. We see children every day struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental challenges.
For that reason I was not surprised by a phone call we received at JFS on July 5. A group of sixth and seventh graders, members of a travel camp, were at Riverfront Park on the evening of July 4. They waited in happy anticipation for the fireworks but instead were caught up in the moments of hysteria.
It stuck with them and the next day the camp director called JFS with a request for help. The teens were struggling. They hadn’t slept well and felt anxious. All because of the moments of panic they experienced. I was happy they knew to call and ask for help.
I am a child and family counselor at Mynd Works Outpatient Counseling, which is part of JFS. I knew I wanted to meet with the teens, and give them a chance to talk about what they experienced and how they felt about it. I know it was important to hear what children and teens are feeling after something like this within the first couple of days, especially if there is any urgent need to connect people with other supports.
Less than 24 hours after the frightening incident I was standing in a hotel conference room in Mechanicsburg surrounded by 60 youngsters, listening to their stories, hearing their fears spill out and reassuring them that their feelings were valid.
I continued to provide support to the counselors and staff of the tour company, as well as follow-up care for teens who needed it. I really applaud the adults who were in charge of those teens for realizing they needed to reach out for help. Not everyone would.
It’s normal to have reactions to the threat of danger. In fact, that’s part of the definition of trauma. The fear is real and can be long lasting, even if the trigger turns out to be firecrackers instead of gun fire.
At JFS, we are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families and the future.
We need to follow the lead of those camp counselors. We need to recognize when children and teens need mental health help. It is not helpful to say they will get over it on their own, or because there was no real shooting it’s not that traumatic.
Everyone can feel trauma after something like that. And it is a normal feeling to want to talk about it, to process what happened. It is one of the best ways to help our children.
If you or someone you know was affected by the events on July 4, JFS and other counseling centers want to assist. It’s not a weakness to ask for help, it’s a strength.
Kay Broderick is a Child & Family Counselor at Mynd Works Outpatient Counseling of Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg.